Playwright: Ike Holter
At: Broadway Armory Park, 5917 N. Broadway. Tickets: JackalopeTheatre.org; $5-$30. Runs through: June 16
Horror and comedy both depend on the narrative twist you didn't see coming to land with maximum effect. We gasp in fright at a perceived danger, then laugh with nervous self-deprecating relief when we find out it's nothing to be afraid ofor is it?
Blending those elements requires pinpoint precision in tone, timing and atmosphere to keep both the story and the audience on its toes. Blending them with a contemporary gloss on the Faustian bargain takes the alchemical skills of Ike Holter.
In The Light Fantasticnow in a stellar and sure-to-make-you-jump world premiere at Jackalope Theatre under Gus Menary's directionHolter moves away from the mean streets and dysfunctional social institutions of Chicago he's explored in past plays to small-town Indiana. ( You're forgiven if Stranger Things comes to mind, as that seems a deliberate echo. )
Grace ( Paloma Nozicka ), a woman who habitually leaves destruction and disgruntlement in her wake, has returned to town and is crashing at her sometime-boyfriend's house. At the beginning of the play, she's having an uncomfortable reunion with local cop and former classmate Harriet ( Brianna Buckley ), who is checking out Grace's claims of strange noises in the house. Their history is clearly thorny. But when Harriet departs, things get even messier. An accidental shooting from Rufus ( Andrew Burden Swanson ), an anguished home invader, causes Grace to call out for help. It arrives, but at what price?
In part, Holter is playing with a trope popular since at least A Christmas Carol: the selfish person who gets a second chance and resolves to make good. Grace, despite her name, is a piece of work who takes Eddie ( Diego Colon ), her long-suffering friend-with-few-benefits, for granted and ignores phone calls from her eccentric mother, Fiona ( Janice O'Neill ), who has her own grim secret. Grace is determined to change after surviving the shooting. When mysterious stranger Katrina ( Elena Maria Cohen ) shows up at her homecoming party, Grace gets a warning that it's too late for personal redemption.
That's reinforced once we meet Peter ( Swanson ), who denies he's Satan but definitely has a whiff of sulfur about him. He goes after those with "no love, no home, no power"the things that Grace has either lost or thrown away in a lifetime of narcissism.
The scary moments come together beautifully in the small space thanks to a crack design team. But Holter's story is equally effective at startling us by upending expected tropes ( particularly with regard to Harriet, who gets one hell of a monologue delivered perfectly by Buckley ). And it takes a certain kind of authorial swagger to pin a crucial twist on a mondegreen.
There are a few slack moments before the end. But for the most part, The Light Fantastic is a mind-bending, gasp-worthy trip.