The end of Carnival of Souls: Purgatorium is harrowing-- a character is pleading, screaming, begging, and you in the audience feel about the story the way the character must feel, the way we all must feel eventually: how did we get all the way here? By that time the expressionism of most of the play is flooded out by sheer terror. Before that is politics and guilt, and slowly building horror.
Carnival of Souls: Purgatorium is a strange experiment from a Dallas theater that specializes in strange experiments. Level Ground Arts is a theater company that in the past couple of years has mounted stage versions of Plan 9 From Outer Space and something called Cannibal: The Musical. Next up-- and I will be there-- will be a stage version of Manos: the Hands of Fate.
Those are farces. This is not, so the stakes are higher. You know how they say comedy is harder than tragedy? That's true mainly because bad comedy is more painful to watch than bad drama. But good drama is nakedly terrifying, because it must connect in ways comedy doesn't have to.
In Carnival of Souls: Purgatorium, an organist named Mary Harrison (Emily Shaw) is rescued in the nick of time from drowning during Hurricane Katrina and plopped into the New Orleans diaspora of 2005. Hours on a bus. Free clothes donated by nervous store managers. A landlady who is full of Christian charity in the same way that Pollyana's aunt was, in that she likes to remind us of it.
Emily Shaw plays this part with fragility and weariness, as though she has been punched in the face-- actually, as though she has seen her house destroyed and has been forcibly moved by a federal agency to North Texas. She conveys to us the quandary of traumatic victims: we who are not victims are not going through what she is going through. We just want to go about our lives. Do you want the shirt or the dress? Would you like a sandwich, or not? The traumatized are damaged, reliving a trauma right in front of us, and our questions seem alien and cruel.
Writer and director Bill Fountain has the characters explore a lot of issues of the Katrina diaspora. At one point, the landlady (Stacie Cleland) and the mysterious, wise and insane creole Virgil (Elias Taylorson) turn to the audience and engage us with facts-- how many people were displaced, how many of them came to Dallas or to Houston, how many had criminal records. Fountain has a keen eye for Texan BS when Virgil says, "and has crime gone up?" And the woman answers, "Statistics say no, but..." and the rest is blather for, "but we know."
But there is more going on than a miniature movie about Hurricane Katrina, because in the middle of all this is a growing horror: Shaw is seeing things that aren't there, and in a couple of scenes, the ghouls that haunt her are generally date-clutching scary, especially in one scene where the lights flicker and twisted figures lurch step by step towards her bed. Especially amazing is the at once mournful and menacing Robert G. Shores as a the ghoul who seems to lead the others, who beckons to Mary more and more. A whole chorus of ghouls dance and move in silence, trapped in another world of yearning and repetition. Meanwhile, projected images show us the one thing that is haunting Shaw most: a nearby abandoned carnival that beckons to her.
Film geeks will of course recognize the skeleton of the story in the 1962 film Carnival of Souls. Low budget, weird and not the most widely-seen horror picture, one can find echoes of its imagery in horror from Night of the Living Dead and The Sixth Sense to House on Sorority Row. I can't decide if you would be better prepared for the play if you had seen that movie or not. I know if you have seen the movie, if you're a horror fan, you should definitely see it.
The stage is intimate and makes a lot of use of a few bare boxes, projection screens, televisions, and soundscapes.
For my part, I was amazed: here was an intimately staged play with one foot in reality and one foot in creepy, building existential horror.
Carnival of Souls: Purgatorium plays at the KD Studio Theater until October 30. Your Halloween Season should spend some time in Purgatory.