Ghost stories need a few key elements to truly scare: constantly building tension, atmospheric lighting and music, a cast that knows when to get out of the way, and just enough backstory to set audiences’ imaginations ablaze. Molotov Theater’s creepshow The Margins aspires to the hair-raising heights of The Conjuring, but ultimately falls short by trying to do too much with too little in too short a time.
The Margins is a new paranormal chapter in Molotov Theatre Group’s long-running Grand Guignol (naturalistic horror) repertoire. The concept is enticing: psychics and mentalists convene on an abandoned mansion to summon a spirit from beyond into our world. The show begins promisingly, with a creepy video introducing the cast through jumpy cinematography and a spine-tingling score featuring piano strings being raked by long fingernails. Kudos to cinematographer Stephen Bradford and composer/sound designer Gregory Thomas Martin for setting an ominous tone, with just enough foreshadowing to send the audience’s brains spinning into dark corners of memory.
When the lights come up, we meet our cast one by one. The archetypes echo classic ghost stories like A Haunting of Hill House: Jonathan, the paranormal investigator with everything riding on this experiment; Phyllida, the uptight historian determined to keep everyone’s feet on the ground; Trace, the mute psychic haunted by a mysterious childhood; Helen, the fiery psychic with romantic hangups and a chip on her shoulder; and Lane, the showy, sexist Vegas mentalist. Rounding out the group is Markus, the skeptical, jaded journalist tasked with reporting the fateful evening.
After the novelty of cast introductions, the play starts to bog down with heavy exposition, thanks to playwright David Skeele’s determination to give every character, the ghost included, a nuanced backstory. Rather than a steady crescendo of dread, we’re treated to long stretches of small talk, lovers’ quarrels, and legend-building. The lack of momentum is deadly to director Carl Brandt Long’s efforts to build tension in the cozy theater.
The cast largely goes through the motions of the filler scenes, before sinking their teeth into the meatier séance and haunting scenes. As Phyllida, Jen Bevan livens up the proceedings with sharp-tongued wit and fanatic energy as she pursues her own mysterious agenda, while Elliot Kashner gives a layered performance as the flamboyant, paranoid Lane.
Finally, the play pulls itself out of the quicksand and builds to a jolting climax of well-choreographed paranormal mayhem, with the whole cast getting into the act beneath slashing music and lights. At the center of the chaos, Katie Jeffries owns the stage for the last few minutes. And just after the show reaches its horrific apex, the lights go down, sending us out into the night on a disturbing high note.
Still, the abrupt ending and breezy 65 minute runtime are puzzling, given Skeele’s love of backstory. If he wanted to keep it lean, he should have stuck to the crux of good ghost stories: They are A) Angry and B) Out to get you – even better if the victims don’t know why. Likewise, horror ensembles work best as ciphers reflecting the audience’s own fears, rather than unique snowflakes (except for intimate, psychological stories like The Sixth Sense).
Ultimately, The Margins tries to shoehorn a tale of clashing personalities, professional deceit, and betrayal into a classic ghost story – and runs out of road on both.
The Margins by David Skeele. Directed by Carl Brandt Long . Featuring Adam R. Adkins, Jen Bevan, Yoni Gray, Kate Jeffries, Elliott Kashner and Brian McDermott . Musical composition and sound design: Gregory Thomas Martin . Lighting design: Pete Vargo . Set design: Rachel Marie Wallace . Special effects: The Jokesters . Produced by Molotov Theatre Group . Reviewed by Ben Demers.