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Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe in the power of the collaborative writing process? Molotov Theatre’s production of The Margins offers one of those phenomena as a way of getting at the other. Based on the “Philip experiment,” a spirit-summoning test conducted in Toronto in the 1970s, the 65-minute horror play imagines a roomful of Fox Mulders (and one skeptical Scully) who collaborate to invent a century-old dead woman, flesh out her backstory, then invite her fictional spirit into their world. But bad things happen when we play God (or play group brainstorm).
The invented persona is a servant girl who was abused by her aristocratic boss, in whose basement the show takes place. As her creators—including two strident feminists and one unapologetic horndog—argue over who this person was and how much agency she had over her own life, The Margins unveils an intriguing metaphor for the creative process. What are her motivations? Her painful histories? How attractive should she be? And what happens when she attempts to break free of her narrative constraints?
Yet just when I was starting to get a handle on the complex rules of this narrative séance, the show changed them—and then changed them again. Playwright David Skeele’s 2007 work is a jittery, restless narrative that, given its brevity, offers little incentive for keeping up. Certainly it’s not to keep abreast of the personal dramas of all these B-movie character types, sketched as haphazardly as the violent specter they conjure.
Adam R. Adkins is quite excitable as the hotshot parapsychologist (really) whom someone describes as “the Indiana Jones of the netherworld” (really). Then there are the two researchers and ex-lovers (Jen Bevan and Katie Jeffries), who spend much of their dialogue protesting gender norms at the expense of their own characters; a flashy, self-absorbed psychic (Elliott Kashner, hamming where he can); a mute medium (Yoni Gray, managing some genuinely terrifying facial expressions); and the skeptic, represented by a New York Times journalist who’s quick to treat everything as a sideshow (Brian McDermott).
When the dialogue grows too painful (“You can put your penis back in your pants now”), director Carl Brandt Long offers a diversion: a camcorder feeding a black-and-white live stream of the action onto a rear projection. Characters will occasionally pick it up to film spooky things on the fly. Years of Paranormal Activity knockoffs have trained horror fans to expect shenanigans whenever a camera is involved, which is why I kept one eyeball on the feed the whole time. To my disappointment, it revealed little except different angles on the actors’ blocking. A cinematic close-up in the play’s closing moments is neat, though.
Molotov’s stated mission is to preserve French-style Grand Guignol horror—short works that emphasize carnivalesque, visceral shocks over deeper meaning. Ironic, then, that The Margins works better as metaphor than it does as horror. But collaborative efforts do always end up in new places.
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