Review: FEARfest 2023 is Haunted by the Unknown

FEARfest 2023

Plays: A Year to Grieve, by Deirdre Girard & directed by Sydney Burtner; Cassie Strickland Is Not Under the Bed, by Vince Gatton & directed by Marie Elèna O'Brien; The Big Bad D Word, by Jennifer Downes & directed by Claire Shiell; Practice, by Caitland Winsett & directed by Lucy Roberts; Hysterical, by John Peña Griswold & directed by Maura Kelley; The Bowl, by R. A. Pauli & directed by David Adam Gill; and The Right One, by William Oliver Watkins & directed by Emily Hartford

Presented by New Ambassadors Theatre Company at The Hudson Guild Theater

441 W. 26th Street, Manhattan, NYC

October 25-29, 2023

Nicolas DiPierro and Marie Elèna O'Brien. Photo courtesy of New Ambassadors
As we rapidly approach the uncontested best holiday of the year (Halloween, if that wasn't clear), New Ambassadors Theatre Company has played the Victor Frankenstein to another great slate of new short plays, assembling these parts into the 2023 incarnation of its FEARfest short play festival. The seven works featured this year again take a variety of approaches to the festival's theme of fear, and together, they produce a highly entertaining mix of otherworldly and mundane horrors, comic and poignant moments, and at least a couple of legitimate jump scares.
Mark Hofmaier and Christopher Morucci. Photo courtesy of New Ambassadors
Deirdre Girard's A Year to Grieve introduces us to bestselling mystery novelist Heather (Marie Elèna O'Brien), who has been staying at an isolated vacation home owned by fellow (though less successful) mystery writer Tom (Nicolas DiPiero, wrapping his character's red flags in charm and solicitude) in order to help her to focus and meet a deadline. In addition to his congratulations on her latest manuscript, Tom offers Heather some unconventional thoughts about how they could use their familiarity with murder to both personal and professional advantage, although their views of what constitutes the former turn out to have quite a bit of distance between them, registered by O'Brien in Heather's increasing discomfort and decreasing ability to hide it. "Murder is very personal," Tom propounds, and something very much like this idea carries over into Vince Gatton's evocatively titled Cassie Strickland Is Not Under the Bed, as does the unsettling of lines among fantasy, imagination, and reality. In Gatton's play, Clay (Christopher Morucci), a young man whose deer hunting and Punisher-related décor points to his enthusiasm for firearms, is having trouble leaving his house - and, more specifically, his bed, under which he is convinced that something terrible is hiding in order to reach out and grab him (for, he swears, a second time). Clay calls Howie (Mark Hofmaier, supportive but skeptical) to ask him for help, and over the course of their conversation, we come to understand the relationship between the Cassie Strickland of the play's title and Clay's struggle to set foot on his own floor. Morucci does fantastic work in channeling Clay's terror, guilt, anger, and humiliation; and his performance only increases the impact of the superbly staged ending. And as with many well-constructed horror narratives, Cassie Strickland Is Not Under the Bed works equally well whether you interpret its climactic events as truly occurring or not.
Torée Alexandre and Mandy Murphy. Photo courtesy of New Ambassadors
There is not even a hint of murder or paranormality in The Big Bad D Word, by Jennifer Downes, just plain old existential reality. The Big Bad D Word briefly but significantly links its narrative to the horrors of gun violence and school budget cuts, but the dominant fear here is the awareness–not an intellectual acknowledgement but a real, bone-deep, inescapable awareness–of one's own inevitable death. When we meet Jenn (Torée Alexandre), she is hyperventilating in the office of guidance counselor Miranda (Mandy Murphy). Jenn is a high school student, which, as Miranda at one point observes, can be a frightful experience in itself, but that is not what is giving Jenn feelings of panic; rather, events in her class have triggered in her an existential crisis, feelingly embodied by Alexandre, around that d-word. Miranda, invested with impressive nuance by Murphy, seems rather humorously ineffective at first, but as we learn the reasons for this and her affected chipperness, they give way to a more honest and authentic connection with the anxious Jenn, as well as some sweetly awkward dancing and an ending that shows that Miranda lives by her own advice.
Juliana Forrest, Erica Deiderich, and Kendra Augustin. Photo courtesy of New Ambassadors
While the fear that emerges at the center of Practice, by Caitland Winsett, is of a similarly common variety as that in The Big Bad D Word, what surrounds it takes us far from the everyday. Lucy (Maile Binion) awakens–on the floor no less–to find a demon (Chase Naylor) claiming to be her worst nightmare. The problem, at least for him, is that Lucy is not scared–something like the opposite, in fact. The demon is determined, though, which leads to a good deal of very funny trial and error on his part as he tries to figure out how to scare his stoned, amorous-feeling target (at one point, it almost becomes like a play rehearsal as the pair reset and retry scenarios). Binion and Naylor are hilarious, and the same can be said of the cast of Hysterical, by John Peña Griswold, which lives up to its punning title. In Hysterical, a terrified hiker, Diane (Juliana Forrest), seeks refuge in a cabin occupied by couple Bernie (Erica Deiderich) and Beatrice (Kendra Augustin). Diane is fleeing a monster in the woods, but Bernie and Beatrice seem more concerned with drinking wine and making jokes–and making Diane make jokes. As the reasons for this manic mirth are revealed (Deiderich does a commendable job of undercutting Bernie's laughter with a certain tightness around the eyes), an interesting parallel emerges between the function of laughter here in relation to the (deadly) "beast" and the function of music in relation to death in Downes's The Big Bad D Word.
Tonia E. Anderson and William Oliver Watkins. Photo courtesy of New Ambassadors
The Bowl, by R. A. Pauli, offers another primarily comic entry, and another beast–maybe. What is under that bowl in the breakroom, wonder a trio of retail employees, Alex (David Michael Kirby), Joyce (Sammy Smedley), and Alice (Mary Lauren). The note affixed to the inverted bowl warns that anyone who moves the bowl should be prepared to kill what is under it, which gives the characters pause, especially as Alex and Joyce's skepticism is overcome and the group moves instead to the planning stage. Even if what is underneath is a rat or a spider rather than a Lovecraftian abomination, the fear of the unknown is still powerful, and characters' attempts to meet that fear are powerfully relatable, and powerfully funny, not least in a scene-stealing late appearance by Jeff Checkley as the trio's uptight, maybe gets-what-he-deserves manager. In some ways, the problem for the vampire Neferkare, or Kah (William Oliver Watkins) in The Right One, by William Oliver Watkins, is that, having lived so long, the future does not feel unknown, but it does feel potentially crushingly lonely. Kah, played by Watkins with a touch of sullen teenager, is in therapy with Grace (Tonia E. Anderson), who is helping him work on his issues with consent, among other things (her suggestion that Kah make another vampire to assuage his loneliness provokes a memorable reaction and involves a twist on vampire lore). One does not have to be an immortal bloodsucker to find commonality with Kah's difficulty in allowing himself to actually feel his own feelings, to be able to cry ("able" being more literal for him), or to crave simple interpersonal contact. As in The Right One, existential fears around death and the future, two varieties of the unknown, recur throughout the plays making up this year's FEARfest, and New Ambassadors has again assembled around this theme a program of funny, scary, and even cathartic short plays.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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