The Darkness of “The Mystery Plays”

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A play filled with shadows and secrets. (Photo by Mikki Schaffner)

Opening tonight at the Falcon Theatre in Newport, Kentucky (just across the river from Cincinnati) is The Mystery Plays written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and directed by Lindsey Augusta Mercer. The play is two interrelated one acts, loosely based on the tradition of the medieval mystery plays, but with more of an urban fantasy ghost story delivery. The dialogue is highly referential to the works of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and captures that darkness with a Truman Capote style humor. Like the original medieval mystery plays, The Mystery Plays wrestles with the most profound of human ideas: the mysteries of death, the afterlife, religion, faith, and forgiveness—in a uniquely American way.

If you’re not familiar with the Falcon Theatre, it is a small black box theatre immediately next door to Costume Gallery on Monmouth Street in Newport, Kentucky; an area that was once infamous for its prohibition era gangsters. The stage is small, the seating is intimate, but the performance fills the space and the themes radiate past the walls of the building. There is a lot that can be said in praise of black box theatre, stripping away all the glamor of lavish productions and getting down to a primordial theatre tradition in which the audience’s imagination is engaged in fleshing out the story.

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Joe (left) confronts Nathan (right) about sins and secrets. (Photo by Mikki Schaffner)

The first play, “The Filmmaker’s Mystery,” follows Joe Manning (played by Adam Jones), a director of horror films, survives a terrible train wreck—only to be haunted by the ghost of Nathan West (played by Simon Powell), one of the passengers who didn’t survive. As the police investigate Joe (played by Leah Strasser), he investigates Nathan, desperate to understand why he survived and what Nathan’s specter could possible want.

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Abby must deal with her own sins as much as that of her brother. (Photo by Mikki Schaffner)

In the second play, “Ghost Children,” Joe’s attorney and friend, Abby Gilly (played by Becca Howell), travels to a small town in rural Oregon to make peace with the man who brutally murdered her parents and younger sister sixteen years earlier. The man—the murderer—is her older brother (played by Jared Earland).

Leah Stasser

The mysterious Train Conductor (Photo by Mikki Schaffner)

Both plays are held together by a frame narrative that is delivered by the ghoulish yet beautifully alluring Train Conductor (played by Leah Strasser) who is our ringmaster of damned souls on their journey to the Underworld. Strasser’s melodramatic performance contrasts the naturalistic performances from the rest of the cast, but this is the license that the character demands; Strasser does an excellent job with her wide eyed stares that look into the souls of the train’s passengers and those of the audience.

I must admit to being pleasantly surprised that the Falcon Theatre’s production of The Mystery Plays exceeded my expectations. I was expecting the play to be good, but I wasn’t expecting to find myself so impressed by the performances as to think “Wow! What are these people doing stuck in Newport, Kentucky?” Each of the actors play multiple roles and during some of the minor character moments there are elements of stock characterization and caricature that detract a little, but with each of the actor’s majors characters there is an utterly convincing sense of ownership and spontaneity in the roles; those wonderful moments when you forget that this is mere performance and feel that you are witness to a real person. With elements of horror, traditional ghost stories, suspense and mystery, stylized theatrics contrasted with natural performance, this is a play that I recommend catching this month . . . but just not on the 14th or you’ll miss The Time Traveler’s Ball 😉

The Mystery Plays opens tonight and performances run November 7th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 19th, 20th, and 21st, 2015. To learn more and buy tickets please visit website at www.falcontheatre.net


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