By Andy Arnold
You know you’ll have a bad day at work when the guests at the Hangtown Asylum for Extremely Tense People lock up the staff and take over the business. As it happens, the asylum is built on a site once occupied by gallows for criminals. After a small earthquake frees a poltergeist, all types of hilarious zaniness breaks out.
Tim Kelly’s Ghostchasers! is the latest offering from Encore Stage’s children’s theatre. A note from Executive Director Sara Duke says Encore is “theatre for kids, by kids,” but this production is professional all the way, thanks to Mara Stewart’s direction. This is Stewart’s debut as a director for Encore. Debra Leonard’s costumes also added to the freshness to the play.
The audience first sees a wonderfully created set of the main room of the Asylum for the Extremely Tense. Kristen Jepperson looks lively enough with a couch, desk, and plenty of open space, but the set will provide a number of surprises from a hidden entrance, to glow-in-the-dark paint, and a number of other wonders. Pay close attention. Actors also use the front of the stage, a side wall, and the aisles to lure the audience into the show. The troupe is experienced. Many are veterans of at least three other roles.
Harriet Hollyhook (Kierman Almand), the famous Dr. Horace Roy’s cousin, has a flight delay and decides to visit her cousin for the first time. She doesn’t realize the Dr. Roy she meets and begins to bond with has neither a Ph.D. nor an MD. He is a “guest”—as are the nurse and orderly. Harriet doesn’t believe in ghosts; she thinks you’d have to be crazy to believe in ghosts.
Almand added athleticism and grace to her character. Whether it was folding her legs as she sat—in one motion—or gliding into the couch after a punch, she pulled the physical action off well. Almand is one of the older cast members, a sophomore at TC Williams High School, and her maturity showed. The youngest member of the cast is in the fifth grade.
Harriet isn’t sold after hearing loud moans and seeing things mysteriously thrown off shelves. She doesn’t believe until one attacks her and Cousin Roy and hurls both of them across the room. Professional wrestling fans will love how Jim Clancy choreographs the fight scene. Even those too immature to appreciate rasslin’ will find the scene laugh-out-loud funny.
Fortunately, the level-minded Ms. Hollyhook knew what to do at the beginning of the unexplained spiritual activity—she called Ghostchasers. What Harriet doesn’t know is that this is the Ghostchasers first job. Once the group’s head, Honcho, arrives, it is a spellbinding fascination for Harriet and Hancho (Oliver Meek).
While Harriet and Hancho have the most lines in the play, no one in the troupe stands out as the star. One who comes closest is Madam Mysteria (Meaghan Leahy). This character is in tune with the other world, giving her an advantage in communicating with the Poltergeist. Also Madam’s timing on the repeated “Someone is speaking,” in a trance-like state when an actor enters a room to say something is hilarious.
Honcho and his staff of student ghostchasers have heart, but almost none of their odd weapons work. When one does, the town of Hangtown is left in peril. You’ll have to see this show to understand how.
One final note, children loved the performance I reviewed.
Running Time: One Hour and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.