Summer Stock Austin's Haunted: A Ghost Story
This new musical by Allen Robertson and Damon Brown is darker than their usual fare, but there's light at the end
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 2, 2019
The stage is sunk in midnight gloom. Firelit faces speak of kids gone missing and never seen again. Spirits possess people attending a seance. A witch can only be stopped with a knife hidden in a graveyard. A silent, grim-faced figure grips the handle of a large axe.
Once the latest musical by Allen Robertson and Damon Brown gets underway, you don't need more than a hot second to grasp that this is not (show) business as usual for the local creative team. Gone are the fancifully imagined societies of tortoises and hares, steadfast tin soldiers and their fellow toys, elves and the shoemakers they help, and the modern, gender-flipped Robin Hood and his merry band that filled the duo's prior Summer Stock Austin productions. In their place is an all-too-familiar clique of mean teens at a sleepaway camp where the head counselor's name is likely to be Jason. Granted, the title, Haunted: A Ghost Story, warns of creepy doings ahead, but given the generally bright, playful tone of Brown and Robertson's other works, you might reasonably expect nothing more spooky-ooky-ooky here than what you'd find in The Addams Family. Haunted is not without humor – Brown and Robertson take jokey jabs at slasher film conventions much as they did heist film tropes in 2018's Rob1n – but overall the show is darker than what we've seen from this team before, in part because the threat they have our heroes face is internal more than external.
Haunted is, as promised, a story with ghosts, but the title is about more than being harassed by a haint; it's about the kind of haunted we are by events in our past, by things that happened – perhaps terrible things – that we believe we were responsible for, that were our fault, and so we can't stop thinking about them. They weigh on us, they trouble us, and in time they may cause us to imagine that we deserve to be punished for them – seriously punished. In the play, we come to see that the character of Jasmine is haunted in this way, and her guilt is leading her toward self-harm. All that's standing in the way of a serious injury or even death is Jasmine's brother Benji, a chipper chatterbox whose relentless nerdy optimism makes him the target of the cool-kid campers' ridicule. Benji is so devoted to his "twin" – his term for Jasmine since they were adopted into the same family on the same day – that he braves the darkness and danger to help her, aided by some fellow misfits, including goth girl Violet and the axe-wielding Brute, who's much more of a softie than he appears.
The thread binding these characters is a sense of separation, of being apart, and in the performances of Evan Vines as Benji, Katy Shafer as Violet, and Brandon Lozano as Brute, we can feel what it is to be an outsider and hurting. It's even more acute in Sene' Warren's Jasmine, whose pain and isolation makes the possibility of self-harm very real. But there's a balance to the darkness, and what makes Haunted such a rewarding experience – and puts it very much in line with other Robertson-Brown musicals – is its message that none of us is alone and its depiction of the characters discovering that truth. Whether it's the adorable way that Shafer and Lozano shyly inch toward each other as Violet and Brute opening up or the honesty with which Vines' Benji and Warren's Jasmine fully embrace their "twinhood," the expression of togetherness in Haunted always washes the stage in light.
In the program for Haunted, SSA has listed a handful of agencies that provide mental health services, and with it is the statement that "we all need help from time to time." We do, and sometimes it really helps to see that played out onstage. Thanks to Allen Robertson, Damon Brown, and Summer Stock Austin, we have that chance.
Haunted: A Ghost StoryRollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Through Aug. 10
Running time: 1 hr.