What did you inherit from your ancestors, and what do you wish you hadn’t? Familial questions such as those are at the forefront of Ragged Wing Ensemble’s ghoulish theater production and art exhibit, Through the Wall, now showing through November 7 at The Flight Deck (1540 Broadway, Oakland). The play marks the small theater company’s first foray into its current season’s theme of kinship, while also serving as a haunting Halloween treat. If you’re squeamish, however, you might want to sit this one out: genuine frights abound in this story about a landlord from hell.
The Flight Deck, where Ragged Wing is a resident company, has been turned into a veritable haunted house for the show. Instead of sufficing with a few cotton cobwebs and plastic spiders, the creative directors behind the production commissioned local artists to create gruesome installation artwork that relates to the play’s overarching themes and most intense moments. A bloody bathroom murder scene — complete with faux-blood pouring out of the sink’s working faucets — is installed just inside the quaint building’s double doors. Meanwhile, a narrow hallway leading to the stage is lined with chilling photographs of solemn, unwelcoming faces. The daguerreotype stills are placed on a mirrored backing, so you can see your own reflection through the grainy faces of unhappy men, women, and children. If creepiness is what you crave, you will have gotten you money’s worth before you’ve even had a chance to lay eyes on the sparsely decorated set or find your seat in the theater.
The play begins with the demise of a stiletto-wearing clean freak, whose supernatural death leads to the introduction of our heroine, Pearl (played by Puja Dolton). She’s interested in renting the bedroom that the red-shoed woman mysteriously left behind. Somehow, innocent Pearl isn’t bothered by the fact that three other women share the tiny apartment, or that the landlady is a dead ringer for a corpse. Pearl is pregnant, single, and desperate to get away from her unloving family and start life anew. So she rents the room, undeterred by the pounding in the walls (“they’re mice!” the tenants say, unconvincingly), and quickly becomes acquainted with her new roommates. Fittingly, all of them have odd character ticks they’ve inherited from their own dysfunctional families.
Evelyn (Michele Owen) can’t stop brushing her luscious golden locks, Tina (Emmy Pierce) has a ferocious appetite that extends to everyone else’s food, and Agnes (Allison Fenner) is a high-strung workaholic whose obsession with punctuality and job stability routinely backfires. It isn’t immediately clear what Pearl’s problem is, though she tellingly feels no connection to the unborn baby who seems to have stopped growing inside her belly. Could she be as detached as her own parents, or is there more to her freakish nightmares about a red-shoed woman stealing her child?
Before Pearl can investigate, the apartment’s influence causes each of her roommates’ odd habits to morph into soul-sucking compulsions that begin claiming lives. In a series of truly spooky scenes, it becomes clear that the roommates’ personal demons are tied to those of the paranormal variety. Unfortunately, the only way to put a stop to the supernatural shenanigans is to confront the past — but as the women learn, that’s easier said than done when you’ve spent most of your life trying to escape it.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from Through the Wall, it’s probably not an uplifting one: It seems that none of the roommates, despite leading rather innocuous lives, are able to free themselves from the sins of their ancestors.
Though at times the plot feels yanked from traditional, clichéd horror lore, there’s something philosophical within Ragged Wing’s otherwise by-the-book thriller. When the deranged landlady (Lisa Drostova) tells one of her tenants that “one man’s trash is another man’s heritage,” there’s a sense that the play is more intelligent and thoughtful than its forbearers within the same genre. These elevated moments of dialogue — which are occasionally peppered with humor — partly make up for the disposable personalities of the characters, most of whom are defined solely by their nervous ticks well before they’ve descended into full-blown madness.
Still, solid performances from the cast members manage to wrangle the audience into their corner. Plus, in a region saturated with rising rents and eviction woes, it’s cathartic to see one apartment horror story that isn’t rooted in reality.