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Active Cultures Theatre is a company specializing in new plays about Maryland. To call it a community theater is no insult, just the facts. (It staffs its shows primarily with professionals.) But the troupe’s offerings have typically had more polish than the first two-thirds of Hellspawn, a trio of one-acts that should nevertheless divert those inclined to overlook more than a few flubbed lines and botched sound cues in their pursuit of locally sourced Halloween chills.
Each short play stems from a commission to write about the strange 1949 episode wherein a 14-year-old boy in Cottage City, Md.—the company’s backyard—convinced his relatives and various clergy he’d been possessed by a demon. The same events inspired William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist, and William Friedkin’s classic 1973 horror film.
April Brassard’s “To Hell & Back,” up first in the lineup, is an unadorned gloss on that possessed-kid scenario, memorable mostly for the fact that Max Jackson—a sixth-grader at Christian Family Montessori school—appears to be having the time of his life hissing at grownups with Satan’s tongue. “Never Have I Ever,” by company co-founder Mary Resing and Jessica Burgess, shows us that hell hath no fury like three girls at a slumber party armed with a Ouija board. The evening’s capper, “Rare Medium Well Done,” by Washington Post humorist Alexandra Petri, is easily the best of the lot, skewering parental-achievement culture with a delicious diegesis: A status-obsessed couple intent on getting their daughter into Brown University must conceal her untimely demonic possession from an admissions interviewer. For what it’s worth, Petri is a Harvard graduate.
Elliott Kashner and Nayab Hussain have an appealing rapport and demonstrate real comic timing as the parents. The piece might’ve ended there satisfyingly enough, but Petri yanks the wheel into spookier terrain by showing us the interview. Jim Epstein’s alumnus dresses like George Will and is too blinded by nostalgia for his own college days to take note of the applicant’s solicitousness. Tiffany Garfinke appears in all three plays but is best used here as the prospective freshman, ticking off her résumé-fattening extracurriculars and reciting beauty-pageant platitudes while harvesting more personal information from her interlocutor than he’ll ever get out of her. Their calm, polite negotiation turns out to be the most horrifying scene of the evening: What could be scarier than the thought that life peaks at college?