Active Cultures Theatre’s Hellspawn II, Reviewed
Hellspawn II, Active Cultures Theatre’s second annual Halloween anthology, is an upgrade from last year’s edition. The playlets here are all ghost stories. Each of the three one-acts riff on local legends surrounding “Black Aggie”—an unauthorized copy of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ hooded, female figure that adorns that Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery. Henry Adams, grandson of the sixth president of the United States and great-grandson of the second, commissioned the untitled statue to mark the grave of his wife, Marian “Clover” Adams, after she committed suicide in 1885.
Eduard L.A. Pausch made a bronze of Saint-Gaudens’ original in 1907, and this replica watched over the dead in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville, Md., for decades. Descendants of the guy who’d paid Pausch to make the bronze donated it to the Smithsonian in 1967. But when the institution discovered the piece had been copied from Saint-Gaudens’ original without his (or Adams’) permission, it pawned it off to the General Services Administration, which in 1987 deposited Black Aggie on the east side Lafayette Square, where it now resides.
So, um, boo! Is your blood not chilled by all this statuary history, thrillseekers? Never mind. It’s a creepy statue that used to be in a cemetery, copied from a creepy statue that is in a different cemetery. Anyway, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
Not bad, on balance. The first of them, Mary Resing’s Faceless, steals a trick from Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, setting two overlapping narratives in the same physical space but decades apart in time. In the present-day half, a graduate student (Meredith Richard), writing a dissertation about Clover Adams’ role in 19th-century politics, waits out a snowstorm at the Hay-Adams Hotel. The hotel stands on the site of the former Adams residence, where in 1886, Henry Adams (Sun King Davis)—still reeling from Clover’s suicide—gets a visit from his former lover Lizzie Cameron (Alison Talvacchio). Paranormal activity ensues, some of it involving the personal papers and photos Mrs. Adams left behind. An abrupt, muddled climax doesn’t undo the adroitly staged interplay among the two sets of characters, and Davis’ acute performance makes poor Henry a palpably haunted man, no pun intended.
Washington Post humor blogger Alexandra Petri gives the legend a comedic gloss with What Fresh Hell, a snappy, fun piece of writing and acting that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
It concerns a kid forced to down a case of beer and spend a few hours in Aggie’s cold embrace as part of a fraternity induction ritual. Manu Kumasi and Joe Feldman have an appealing rapport as the pledge and his sponsor, and they know just how to land Petri’s jokes. A representative sample: Once inebriation and the lateness of the hour conspire to trick the boys’ senses, Feldman tells Black Aggie (played by Talvacchio), “You’re not a ghost, because we don’t believe in ghosts!”
“That doesn’t even work for global warming,” Kumasi protests.
The final play, Michael John Garcés’ Grief, casts Lee Mikeska Gardner as various unquiet souls haunting Rock Creek Cemetery, where the statue from which Aggie was replicated still stands. While its two predecessors on the bill are eerie and funny, respectively, this is one is a complicated bore; a celery stick in a pillowcase of fun-size candy bars. At the end of the evening, the scorecard reads Tricks: 1, Treats: 2.
The trilogy runs to Nov. 4 at Riverdale Town Center. Tickets $15-$20.