Plays the devil made them write
There was once a kid who lived in Cottage City, Maryland. In 1949, in fact. Research says the boy—Ronnie Hunkeler—was very “off.” A loner with classic anti-social traits, by all witnesses, he was a miscreant who enjoyed causing pain and anguish, going so far as occasionally torturing small animals, but his Swedish immigrant family was convinced the boy was demonically possessed.
Knowing their concern, Ronnie did everything to act the part, engaging in every seemingly demonic behavior his imaginative mind could think up. His parents converted from Evangelical Lutheranism to Roman Catholicism, so they could obtain an exorcism for him. The events made the local newspapers that year, and then Ronnie and the Hunkeler family slipped back into obscurity.
But a local legend was born, one that has inspired pilgrimages to the family’s old home at 3807 40th Street for decades now, was the inspiration for a novel by William Peter Blatty and was retold in William Friedkin’s classic film “The Exorcist,” which, from 1973 to 1975, was the top-grossing movie of all time.
Active Cultures Theatre has specialized for years in bringing local lore to the stage, so it was a sure thing that the company would get around to this story at some point. This summer, the company’s intern—Olivia Gunn—tracked down every bit of information she could find on the Hunkelers and sent her notes off to three local playwrights, asking them to write a short drama based on her information.
The end result premiered this week at the Riverdale Park Town Center, and will play briefly at Woolly Mammoth in the days preceding Halloween. Hellspawn — directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner—is three brief one-act plays stitched together by some short sketches intended both to unease and amuse.
The evening itself reflects the point our culture has reached in regards to subject matter such as this. Though the flashlight-waving scenes at the beginning and end of the play dearly want you to go away with the impression that these incidents were a serious matter, the playwrights don’t seem to feel that themselves. Though written independently, each play goes light on the freak-out theatrics and heavy on the wry humor and social satire.
The opener, To Hell & Back by April Brassard, dramatizes the actual 1949 exorcism. Fathers Brassard and Simone bumble through their ancient rituals, reading the wrong passages of scripture, while Ronnie mocks them with clever quips and shockingly true accusations. If he isn’t exactly possessed, Ronnie is certainly something that’s no good, often delivering his lines while hopping around like an insane jackrabbit or crawling like a malevolent insect. As the young boy, actor Max Jackson truly lights up the stage with his mischevious intensity. All the more impressive from an actor whose only prior stage work was as an extra in a production of The Wizard of Oz.
The second play, and the one that follows it are both set in the present. In Never Have I Ever by Jessica Burgess and Active Cultures artistic director Mary Resing, a trio of teenage girls, Regina (Anastasia Wilson), Cecilia (Tiffany Garfinkle,) and Ann (Danielle Hutchinson) hold a Halloween night sleepover across the street from the old Hunkeler haunts, and somehow end up inviting the Lord of the Flies himself to their little slumber party. This was the least successful play in the trio.
To end the evening, Rare Medium Well Done by Alexandra Petri is pure farce. With a teenage daughter (Tiffany Garfinkle) who is possessed by a demon, Erik (Elliot Kashner) and Charlotte (Nayab Hussain) are worried less about the implications for humanity than they are worried how this will affect her chances of getting accepted to Brown University. Desperate, Charlotte hires a medium (Dannielle Hutchinson) who has a totally new-age attitude towards spiritual matters. As it turns out, she is totally unprepared to handle the situation, doing silly things like trying to convince the demon to jump in a vial she has brought, and assuming contact lens solution is an acceptable substitute for holy water. Finally, the two engage in a frank conversation, giving Petri way too many opportunities to mock modern attitudes and sensibilities.
This was by far the best play of the set and the performances were spectacular. Hussain didn’t get quite as interesting a role as Hutchinson and Garfinkle, but she stands out for other reasons. Not only did she play Charlotte in this play, she also portrayed the real estate agent in the little skits that ran between the plays, voiced off-stage screams and worked some of the effects. Later this year, she’ll be seen on Lifetime’s “The Day That Changed My Life”.
After the play, Resing asked the audience if any of them were scared by the staging of the play. Nobody could really answer that they were. Though she was trying to get a measure on the effect of the lighting and the various sound and visual effect, it really wasn’t their fault. It just wasn’t that kind of evening.
Hellspawn plays Oct 13 – 22 at Riverdale Town Center, 4650 Queensbury Rd, Riverdale, MD. And Oct 27 – 30 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Melton Rehearsal Hall, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
To Hell & Back by April Brassard
Never Have I Ever by Jessica Burgess and Mary Resing
Rare Medium Well Done by Alexandra Petri
directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
produced by Active Cultures
reviewed by Steve Hallex
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes