Walking into Source Festival’s Uncle Cory’s Secret Playtime brought me back to the days of watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? as a kid in the ’90s. That Nickelodeon show packed a whole lot of tremors into just its short introduction: an empty boat rocking, children giggling, shutters rattling during a storm, a demonic-looking toy in an attic… It was enough to stop my breath and make me jump at only the slightest provocation.

Upstairs in a rehearsal room at Source, a scene unfolds that would raise the neck hairs of adults, let alone kids crowding around the TV in their pajamas: As creepy, singsong Barney the Serial Killer Dinosaur tunes play, you take a seat in one of the tiny chairs around the walls or—-if you’re late—-clustered in the middle. To the left, clutching a closet-door handle, is a slumped-over rag doll (Angela Pirko), with long red scars and stitch marks running down her back and arms. Her blonde pigtails dangle next to the noose around her neck.

Old-fashioned TVs sit in each corner playing static. Rumpled teddy bears and other toys are scattered around the room like massacre victims. Next to me, someone whispers, “I am profoundly scared right now.”

The lights go down and—-oh, God!—-the doll moves. She reaches up to open the door, and a hand appears from the darkness. And then… a clown face.

Uncle Cory’s Secret Playtime is a largely wordless play about coulrophobia, or a fear of mimes and clowns. It is one of the Source Festival’s Artistic Blind Dates, which throws artists from different mediums together in order to create something new and interesting. Cory is the work of tap dancer Quynn Johnson, theater artist Pirko, and painter Cory Oberndorfer. The latter—-who’s also the play’s namesake—-actually has coulrophobia. But in what may be a therapeutic act for him, Oberndorfer himself steps into the role of the horn-honking, painted menace of his nightmares.

For 45 minutes, Oberndorfer, Pirko, and Johnson play with their environment and improvise with the audience. With no dialogue, they obsessively tinker with a jack-in-the-box. Pirko sways her hips to the clinking metal tune, slowly forming a diabolical smile; Oberndorfer looms by the window as ominous music plays, gripping a poor, hapless balloon like a hostage; and throughout, Johnson’s choreography is lithe, playful, and intelligent. But to explain the specific way in which this brief, odd piece unfolds would unfairly rob potential audiences of suspense, so I will only mention that there is one sneaky, well-executed little twist in the middle of Uncle Cory’s Secret Playtime that, the night I saw it, made everyone in the room gasp with delight.

Unfortunately, Uncle Cory‘s creative team can’t sustain the same level of intrigue stirred up in the work’s opening moments. The audience participation format isn’t the right choice for this show; the piece may be better served by letting the performance unfold in its own twisted way, rather than inviting the whole family to join in. After those initial bed-wetting moments—-listening to the haunting children’s music, wondering what might come out of that closet door—-we see the mechanical shark, so to speak, and the tension evaporates. “Oh, this is pretend,” it’s easy to think. “They are only going to invade our personal space to the extent that we allow them.”

The talk-back that follows immediately after the lights come up doesn’t help. These Q-and-A sessions are standard for all of Source Festival’s Artistic Blind Dates, but it’s this too-real, out-of-character interaction between the performers and their audience that finally sops up whatever lingering sense of eeriness remains.

Uncle Cory’s Secret Playtime is ostensibly about a fear of clowns, but there’s a deeper phobia pulling the strings: the fear that we won’t get it.

The play runs June 16 at 3 p.m., June 22 at 6 p.m., June 29 at 3 p.m., and June 30 at 6 p.m.

Photo by Flickr user marc falardeau used under a Creative Commons license.