Stage review: Darkspell at Yellow Sign Theatre
A disclaimer made before Darkspell warned that anyone sitting in the front two rows was guaranteed a shower of fake blood. The audience murmured nervously — someone whispered about cashmere. Yellow Sign’s artistic director Craig Colletta spread his arms benignly. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It washes out. It’s even edible. I’ve tasted it.”
The play takes place on the opening night of the Yellow Sign Nightclub, a Baltimore speakeasy, sometime in the 1920s. Prohibition is in full effect, and club owner Miles (Mike Jancz) has arranged for the supply of booze to travel through a series of tunnels leading all the way to the port. Unfortunately, the path of the excavation passed through several creepy sites, including the catacombs beneath Greenmount Cemetery and an ancient tribal burial ground. When Miles brings out a prehistoric bowl that was found in the tunnels to use in ceremonial toast to the club’s opening, it’s clear that things are going to get weird.
The cast makes the most of their archetypal roles, and the play’s adherence to the formula of its milieu feels like homage more than hindrance. Miles’ prying mother (Mattie Rogers), a child street urchin (Roric Coletta) peddling his wares, and trusty barkeep Benny (Karim Ibrahim) make the club come alive. Jefferey Springtree Gangwisch embodies slime ball Calvin with alarming zeal, making the most of the splash zone by spilling several drinks all over the audience.
The plot is predictable, but the thrill of a play like this doesn’t come from the unfurling of a complicated story— it’s the anxious tugging along the inevitable path towards bloodbath that keeps things compelling.The main story line is interrupted by several nightclub acts which serve as interludes between scenes. They make up a large portion of the play, and luckily, manage to avoid being filler. Kay-Megan Washington shines as Jasmine, singer of jazzy torch songs, and Shecky the comedian (Craig Coletta) is awesomely terrible. But the performances of Khan-ton the magician (L.G. Gerace) and Bella Noelle the burlesque dancer (Kitty Bermuda) were hurt by rigidity and an unresponsive audience. There seemed to be an attempt to foster the atmosphere of a real club, but the crowd was confused as to how to react. Perhaps a clearer delineation between the main plot and the acts as well as a dollop of improv would have helped to loosen everybody up.
But like all suspense/thrillers, the entirety of Darkspell rests on the strength of its ending. And a calamitous ending it is. The omens keep mounting, and after a couple of conspicuous disappearances and a healthy dosing of slime, everybody is getting anxious. When the gun-toting owner of a rival speakeasy (Scott Burke) bursts in with a corrupt politician (Aaron Travis) in tow to shut the Yellow Sign down, the intensity is ratcheted up. But firearms prove to be useless when the inhabitants of the tunnels make their presence known. Without giving too much away, let us say that the “designated blood-splash zone” is put to use with vicious alacrity. It is hilariously violent, and for a moment the sweet relief of carnage washes over the audience. Immediately following is a lightning-quick denouement that falls somewhere between appropriately brief and haphazardly tacked-on. All this happens so fast that is is hard to appreciate the gore, glorious as it is. The final scene runs out too quickly, and makes all that preceded too lengthy in retrospect. When a fuse burns that long you expect a bigger bang.
After a lightning quick denouement, Darkspell ended and the audience filed out into the October night — those who braved the vanguard of the splash zone were marked with a healthy semisweet spatter
Darkspell runs through Oct. 31 at Yellow Sign Theater, 1726 North Charles Street, 8pm, $10