Pictured: Nick Shank. Photo by Shea Petersen.
By Aaron Lockman
Theater in found spaces is always a risky business, but when you walk into the premises that Exit 63 Theatre chose for this show – an old, rickety house in Rogers Park where the stairs creak and the heating is out – you can immediately begin to see some of the rewards that such a space offers. DARK MATTERS is a slow, spooky, and chilling ride, and this production’s strongest aspects stem from the way it smartly uses its unusual venue to create an atmosphere that furthers its story.
We open in the living room of an old house in the mountains of Virginia, where middle-aged writer Michael (Mike Carey) talks with local sheriff Richard Egan (Scott Olson) about the disappearance of his wife Bridget (Ann Sonneville), an amateur astronomer with some strange ideas about the stories of alien abduction that plague this area. As the couple’s teenage son Jeremy (Nick Shank) enters, quite intoxicated and talking about strange lights in the sky, the mystery of where exactly Bridget went becomes deeper, wilder, and harder to believe.
Living room plays in the American theatre are, to put it politely, overdone to the point of boredom. And indeed DARK MATTERS suffers from a few classic missteps that plague the format. Blocking, for instance, can become repetitive in a single setting if not carefully handled. There was an awful lot of standing up, sitting down, standing up again with hands on hips, and then gesturing angrily with those hands before sitting down again. As a result, actors sometimes seem physically uncomfortable inside their characters. This did get distracting, but thankfully director Nora Lise Ulrey has such lovely command over pacing and suspense, and is working with such a tight, spooky, and lyrical script (playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa also worked on Riverdale and the Netflix Sabrina series), that it never causes the play to drag.
The way the director and designers use the space to create ambiance is what helps DARK MATTERS rise above the fray. Behind the carpeted living room that serves as the set, a wall of glass doors separates us from a high-ceilinged, gymnasium-like room that is kept mostly dark, giving the allusion of a vast, empty nighttime. Off where we can’t see it, a single stage light shines indirectly from the other room and filters through the glass, creating fractal rainbows that feel uncanny and strange. The color of this unseen stage light shifts at key moments in the story. Meanwhile, six or seven household lamps softly illuminate the living room that we see. Sometimes actors turn these lamps on and off – but sometimes, they flicker off and on of their own accord, adding to an otherworldly, ghostly feeling. Lighting designer David Goodman-Edberg has done remarkable work here, and works well with the original score (MindExchange Music) to push the action forward, threading intrigue and suspense through the show like string through a needle.
But what is this show saying? Why is it relevant? After all, this is an all-white cast in a relatively cliché, X-Files-esque mystery thriller, yet it manages to avoid feeling like tread ground.
I think DARK MATTERS’ staying power comes from the urgent things it has to say about the way we choose to perceive the world. This is going to get tricky without spoilers, but: through examining the all-too-mundane details of Michael and Bridget’s marriage, this play touches not only on topics of domestic abuse but the sacrifices people in relationships will make for each other. As essential as empathy and forgiveness are in intimacy, how much can you be expected to forgive? The rich metaphor of alien abductions that runs throughout – the primary purpose of which is to create terrifying existential questions about what unseen, mammoth forces control us – has a smaller scope as well. Trying to understand another person’s worldview, especially when that person has hurt you beyond repair? It can destroy you. In this play, the hidden, unspoken problems between husband and wife have effects that ripple out to interplanetary consequences.
Some audience members might not like having to watch this play in the cold, as the heating in the creaky old house is practically nonexistent. But even casting aside the warm cider and blankets provided for us, I didn’t mind it. It worked. This is a show where you’re never quite sure what reality you occupy, and where every character’s worldview is shattered and brought into chilling relief – literally and figuratively.
DARK MATTERS runs through January 27. For more information visit exit63theatre.com.