Things that go bump in the night are much less frightening than a couple of random hookups in TheatreFIRST’s anthology of ghost stories From the Ground Up (through Nov. 17). On the way inside, an usher said that the play would be “immersive” but the theater is so dark throughout the performance it’s often hard to confirm that description. The carefully composed set is jam-packed with shelves that are stacked and overflowing with bottles and bric-a-brac, a dusty Paxton Gate that hasn’t gotten any new inventory, or customers, for decades.
Our host for the evening is a hunchbacked crone known as The Shopkeeper (Tierra Allen). Her labored breathing and terrible posture suggest that she’s creepy enough to take over The Crypt Keeper’s job. Like the mysterious David S. Pumpkins, we don’t find out her origin story. She snakes around the room, between the small stage and the audience, in search of matches. But pay attention to the gibberish that keeps sputtering out of the corners of her mouth. It will ultimately tie all eight tales together.
Not that a single, unifying theme emerges. Some of the sketches are just a few lines long, ideas that are starting to take shape rather than fully formed. Others achieve a certain amount of momentum and then come to an end without achieving a lasting impact. In the anthology opener “Bolo” by Lisa Marie Rollins, Jorgé (Juan Berumen) knocks on Tala’s (Eliza Boivin) caravan door. She’s muttering an incantation while mixing ingredients for a tincture or a spell. They talk about what it would mean for her, a gypsy sorceress, to have a baby. Since the darkness cloaks their expressions, I tried to zero in on the emotions in their exchange, but without luck. I couldn’t tell if they had been lovers or if she was suggesting that they should be. A vengeful wraith then shakes her home until it trembles. After she wards it off, “Bolo” too is spirited away.
The actors in Steve Yockey’s “Brutal” capitalize on the playwright’s contemporary language, and its directness, to turn an urban myth into something realistic and frightening. Henry (Jeremy Marquis) shows up at the house of a potential trick (Yohana Ansari-Thomas) he’s chatted with online. Ansari-Thomas is lying prone on his stomach waiting for Henry to role-play an agreed upon intrusion scene. But when he opens the door, Henry gets cold feet and wants to suss the situation out first. The trick flirts with him while also insinuating that something sinister is going on upstairs in the attic. Both Marquis and Ansari-Thomas convey the thrill and the weird tension that arises when two strangers meet up to have sex.
Brit Frazier’s “Boohag” follows “Brutal” and further extends the puritan belief that a drunken one-night stand might not be beneficial for the soul. Man (LaMont Ridgell) tells us, in a glorious rhythmic drawl, about the night he met a mythical creature called the Boohag (Tierra Allen). Frazier sets the story up by comparing the singing churchgoers with pleasure-seeking sinners like Man. He hears the sound of a gospel choir but passes it by for a nightclub. There he’s enchanted by a woman singing “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” If a man was ever willing to give up his soul to have a woman, he’d be first in line to sell it to the devil.
From this point on, the strength of Frazier’s humid Southern atmosphere permeates the other pieces. With a reference to a slave owner, Arisa White’s confounding “Rock, Scissors, Paper” must have also been set in the South but the lingering specificity of “Boohag” helped to ground its vagueness. While Andre’s (Jeremy Marquis) in bed, time stops as a couple of ghosts drop by to ask him for a blood sacrifice. White is either inventing or adapting a fable or folktale about troubled relationships between fathers and sons. But the details in the narrative, about an ancient curse, are confusing and need to be ironed out. In this iteration, the author’s intention to terrify doesn’t succeed.
For From the Ground Up to work its magic upon you, for the spells to sink in, approach it with an air of innocence. Pretend you’re about to take that spooky ride through The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland for the very first time.
From the Ground Up, through Nov. 17, a TheatreFIRST production at the Waterfront Playhouse & Conservatory, 2020 Fourth St, Berkeley. $15-$35; 510-981-8150 or theatrefirst.com