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very still & hard to see is an anthology of spooky stories from the macabre-minded scribe behind Forum Theatre’s 2014 Pluto and other morbid curiosities. It begins when a man falls through a hole in the floor at a construction site. That inciting incident offers a pre-fab metaphor for Rorschach Theatre’s characteristically ambitious enterprise, one I’m afraid I’m just too literal-minded and unimaginative to resist: It’s a marvelous haunted house erected on the shaky foundation of Yockey’s opaque script, which seems to depict a series of horrific events occurring in different eras on the grounds of a hotel that is cursed by the sins of the architect who designed it. But I’m not even certain of that much. All work and no play makes me a dull boy, to paraphrase another guy who spent too much time in a creepy hotel.
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“Magic in rough spaces” has been a motto of Rorschach Theatre throughout its 14-year existence. Scenic designer Brian J. Gillick, lighting designer Robbie Hayes, and sound designer Frank DiSalvo Jr. have pulled off a fine trick in recasting the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s staid 260-seat Lang Theatre as an unfamiliar, threatening environment, one that almost seems to breathe in soft, unholy pulses. The audience is let up in small groups via elevator, where an artificially pallid, uniformed bellhop (James Finley) warns us not to take photos and a pair of sleepwalkers in featureless white masks bump among us. Entering the cavernous Lang, we’re seated on risers on what is usually the stage, while the rows of permanent seats are left unoccupied. Through one scene, a woman sits knitting in the back, flanked by two figures in those same porcelain-like masks. Is she the same witchy-woman (Yasmin Tuazon) the architect encountered after he fell down that hole? It’s too dark to tell. But it sure is eerie, the way she’s just sitting there watching us.
Even if you can decode the cryptic tale with which Yockey intends to bridge these (apparently) disconnected vignettes, the show feels hit-and-miss: Some moments are visually arresting, some are powerfully acted, too many are merely confounding. When a woman recounts a beach getaway gone nightmarishly wrong, tarps covering the rows of empty seats behind her rise on strings, approximating a swelling sea. That you can see the people standing in the balcony pulling the strings up does nothing to diminish the otherworldly effect. Elsewhere we hear the tale of a an affection-starved husband (Peter Finnegan) whose depressed, heavily medicated wife stirs from her slumber on the evening he brings home a prostitute. Farrell Parker has a fun scene as a femme fatale in a gold lamé ball gown (Debra Kim Sivigny did the costumes) who has a nasty habit of… eating the people her two clipboard-wielding, flip-up-specs-wearing attendants procure for her, I think? She sings a verse of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and dances with Kari Ginsburg a little, injecting some desperately-needed movement and color into a piece that by then has grown ponderous, though it’s only 90 minutes long. The scenes are punctuated by recorded songs, not identified in the program, that swing in the vein of jaunty melancholia from which Tom Waits has mined most of his career. They seem to portend the good time we’re all about to start having, any minute now.
1333 H St. NE. $15-$30. (202) 399-7993. atlasarts.org.