Spooky season is here and Olney Theatre Center couldn’t have picked a more appropriate autumnal selection than The Brothers Paranormal, which takes on that trickiest of all theater genres: the horror play.
Incorporating horror into live theater has always been a challenge. The elements that make for a good suspense flick are harder to produce in front of a live audience where you can’t rely on camera angles or clever editing to spice up the spook value, especially in a venue as intimate as Olney’s Lab Stage, where some audience members are a mere foot or two from the performers.
But playwright Prince Gomolvilas and co-directors Hallie Gordon and Aria Velz pull it off… mostly… by blending the spooky stuff — a woman believes her house is haunted by a ghost — with relatable characters who invite us into the lives of two endearing but troubled families.
The year is 2007, the location somewhere in the American Midwest. Brothers Max and Visarut are Thai Americans who started a “ghost busting” business six months ago and have yet to snag any clients. They are hired by Delia and Felix, an African American couple who were forced to abandon their home in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. Delia is convinced that a ghost, possibly that of a young Thai-speaking woman, has taken up residence in the couple’s new home. Felix is worried that Delia might be losing it.
And let me be very clear about this: there is most definitely a ghost haunting Delia and Felix’s home, a ghost named Jai who in the corporeal form of local performer Justine “Icy” Moral, who is creepy as hell, if underutilized, in a performance that caused one audience member seated two rows behind me to scream so loudly that I thought she was part of the cast. Yes, jump scares on stage are possible, and The Brothers Paranormal has enough of them to satisfy any thrill-seeking theatergoer.
The real achievement in Gomolvilas’ script, however, lies in the way that the playwright connects a simple ghost story to a complex introspection of what it means to “move on” whether from this life to the afterlife or from one’s home to a place where one is a stranger. Both families at the center of the story are trying to move on after displacement. Delia and Felix, longing for their former home in New Orleans, are played with great chemistry by seasoned local actors Lolita Marie (Delia) and DeJeanette Horne (Felix). The couple are equal parts funny and earnest, Marie at her best when embracing her character’s sarcastic side and Horne turning what could have been a staid, supporting roll into a highlight of the production.
Brothers Max and Visarut, meanwhile, along with their mother Tasanee, struggle with their family history as immigrants from Thailand. Younger brother Max (played with nonchalant humor by Tommy Bo), the only one in the family who was born after they moved to the U.S., struggles to understand the ways in which his mother and brother feel unmoored. Older brother Visarut (played with jaded weariness by Eymard Cabling) and his mother Tasanee are each battling demons. The result is an endearing glimpse into a fractured family and the mental load that comes with being uprooted. Cindy Chang’s Tasanee delivers an epic monologue about Thai funerals (the bodies are kept at home for days while family members gather to help the deceased make the transition to the afterlife) that beautifully summarizes the play’s exploration of family and belonging.
What kept this production from being A+ was the awkward and slow pacing during scene changes. The audience is literally left in the dark at times as the set (Misha Kachman’s scenic design centers on a swinging wall) rotates between the two families’ homes. Black streamers on one side of the stage look amateurish and distracting.
And while the script cleverly ping-pongs between ghost hunting and sentimentalizing, it struggles at times to make the tonal shifts necessary to fully immerse us in both atmospheres. I don’t know whether writing or direction is responsible for this tonal dissonance, but it is a minor complaint in what is otherwise a thoroughly unique and entertaining theater experience. Clever special effects by illusions consultant Jim Steinmeyer and illusions instructor Robert Ramirez add to the atmosphere and are impressively real in the small intimate space.
The audience left the theater giddy with excitement and I’m still buzzing inside days later. The Brothers Paranormal is the perfect spooky-season adventure. It’s a good thing Olney doesn’t serve popcorn because I would have flung mine across the room at the first jump scare.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
The Brothers Paranormal plays through October 29, 2023, at Olney Theatre Center’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets ($70–$85) are available online or through the box office at 301-924-3400, open from 12 pm – 6 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students (for details click here).
The program for The Brothers Paranormal is online here.
COVID Safety: Face masks are recommended but no longer required to attend events in any Olney Theatre Center performance spaces.