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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | From the overbearing parent to the ex who keeps popping up uninvited to that pillow hog in bed next to you, everyone, it seems, wants to direct. Even you, dear audience member, can’t sit in a theater for more than a few minutes without giving the show a mental rewrite. Don’t feel bad about it. Shifting the focus to your liking is a perfectly natural response to an imperfect world.
How lucky for us, then, that the latest sharply crafted piece of comedic, supernatural, existential puzzle work from the writing team of Marina & Nicco includes a nifty (but by no means gimmicky) little device that gives spectators real control over the unfolding drama, while trusting them to exercise that power responsibly.
“Unpacking: A Ghost Story Told in the Dark” finds us eavesdropping on Melissa and Anthony’s first night of cohabitation in a newly purchased home. Actually, it’s just a two-bedroom, and not the whole building — but it’s all theirs.
Or so it seems.
Shortly after a bit of lovey-dovey cooing and some small talk about what color to paint the walls, there’s a block-wide power failure. Things get weird fast, when the seemingly happy couple is momentarily separated during their desperate attempt to figure out what went wrong (lack of electricity isn’t the only thing keeping these two in the dark).
Back in the same room, if not entirely on the same page, Anthony compares Melissa’s hastily designed candlelight decor to that of a séance. The strange mojo that clouds the rest of the night, however, is never fully explained. Dead parents (Anthony’s formidable mother and the father who abandoned him) might be real or imagined; and Melissa’s interaction with a fun-loving former roommate and an appealing ex-lover, both of whom are very much alive, might be their astral projections or her wishful thinking. To the writing duo’s credit, this lack of clarity only serves to deepen the mystery by encouraging us to fill in the blanks with issues and agendas and rationalizations of our own. Whatever the cause, how deeply in love can these increasingly tense homeowners be? After all, this isn’t the first time they’ve confided in a specter instead of each other.
As their house becomes crowded with spooky guests dispensing largely unsolicited advice, the ghostly visitations shine a light on what went wrong — metaphorically. The literal task of light direction is up to the audience, who’ve been given flashlights and told to point that unflinching beam at their character of choice, the clock on the wall, or the packing boxes in the corner — or leave the entire cast in relative darkness for the rest of the show. Those of us viewing intimate exchanges between lovers, children, and estranged friends from the sidelines will decide what to shine a light on, and when. That’s a clever way to play tag with the fleeting nature of illumination, and it’s worth noting this novel production value never approaches, or even flirts with, cheesy contrivance (another appealing strength of the playwrights also seen in 2016’s time loop audition fantasia, “Room 4”).
Effectively staged by Niccolo Aeed, whose direction is especially crisp in moments of tense confrontation, the uniformly strong cast doesn’t seem phased by shifts in status bestowed upon them by the random attention of a flashlight. The lead performers (SJ Son’s Melissa and Temesgen Tocruray’s Anthony) arrive at establishing house rules in a believable and skilled manner best understood, and appreciated, in hindsight. As Anthony’s estranged father, Odera Adimorah’s Lou has a long, particularly compelling, deep-marrow monologue and the most emotionally complex backstory. Written with plenty of flaws and played with even more charisma, he’s the play’s best argument for dealing with your restless nature until the power comes back on.
Written by Marina Tempelsman and Niccolo Aeed. Directed by Niccolo Aeed. Produced by Michelle Francesca Thomas. Set design by Ally Spier; Lighting design by Katy Cecchetti. Through Aug. 13; Wed.–Sat. at 7pm, Sun. at 2pm. At HERE (145 Sixth Ave.; enter on Dominick St., 1 block south of Spring St.). For tickets ($25), visit here.org. Artist info at marinaandnicco.com.