A haunted house that deals in the ghosts of regret, lost love, and dream
Reviewed by Dan Solomon, Fri., Oct. 26, 2012
Dream CabinetEponymous Garden, 1202 Garden, 474-7886
Through Oct. 31
Running time: 55 min.
The words "haunted house" conjure a very specific set of rules around Halloween – kids in hockey masks jumping out from behind haystacks, strobe lights, etc. – which makes describing Dream Cabinet as a haunted house seem misleading. However, that's exactly what Salvage Vanguard Theater's new show at Eponymous Garden is. It is a house, and it is an immersive story about the people who haunt it.
One enters the house after a preamble both out-of-character (with the audience informed of the rules: no opening closed doors, no going up the stairs, no talking, no touching the performers) and in-character (Robert Pierson's P.T. Barnum-esque huckster making a bizarre sales pitch about the snake oil-like glory of "electronoise"). Inside, things develop slowly. The audience is free to explore the rooms, which are laden with both clues and red herrings about what's happened here, and the spirits come to life – slowly, at first, not acknowledging the audience or one another – before the action begins.
The story of Dream Cabinet isn't entirely clear; it involves a young woman (Adriene Mishler, credited in the program as "Dreamer") whose children have come out wrong somehow. Their father, a Soldier (Michael Joplin) is not around, and it's left to a wicked Nurse (Cyndi Williams) to address the situation, while Pierson (credited as Doctor) whisks her away to his circus, where she'll serve as tattooed lady, hoochie-coochie dancer, and his wife. As the Strongman (Jude Hickey) enters the picture, however, the mystery that's got these ghosts trapped in the house starts to take shape.
Starts to but doesn't really finish, making the experience of Dream Cabinet not entirely satisfying, from a plot perspective. But this is a haunted house, and the production's sacrifices of clear narrative are made at the altar of immersive storytelling. Author Sterling Price-McKinney favors cryptic, stilted dialogue (you hear a number of variations on the clunky phrase "I must do what I must do while you must do what you yourself must do"), along with a vague plot to keep the slate relatively blank and open to a variety of interpretations. It's a smart choice, given that each person will experience the show differently by virtue of which rooms they choose to visit, and while the broad strokes will be the same for everyone, one can miss things by focusing one's attention elsewhere.
Dream Cabinet is a haunted house, for sure, but it deals in the sort of ghosts that are scary year-round – regret, lost love, and dreams. The dreamlike quality of the performance favors a creepy tone and mood over the more visceral thrills of the season, and that mood lingers upon waking to the world, regardless of how clear the details are.