Before Otherworld Theatre’s production of Gone Dark even begins, you are told that the audience will travel between multiple rooms during the play. You may be thinking, “Wait, how do you put on a play in different rooms?”
With precision, that’s how.
Written by San Francisco playwright Stuart Bousel, Gone Dark tells the story of an international society of vampire hunters in 1899 Germany who gather for their yearly reunion after the death of their leader. When one of the members leaves a job unfinished, the prey returns to cause violent havoc on the rest of the society.
Going into Gone Dark, I was just that: in the dark. I had no idea what to expect, as I had never seen a fantasy play before. My biggest fear was that the production would slip into the realm of melodrama, where everything is exaggerated to the point that it is no longer realistic. It’s easy for fantasy productions in particular to not stay grounded in its reality. Gone Dark generally avoids this pitfall thanks to some stellar design elements and honest acting.
The greatest strength of Gone Dark is the immersion into the world of 1899 Germany. The playbill you receive upon entering the Epworth United Methodist Church acts as a pamphlet introducing you, as an initiate, to the society and its members. The production expertly uses the entire church as a stage, having a silent figure guide the audience from room to room to watch the play unfold.
Lighting designer David Goodman-Edberg cleverly placed lights outside the church’s windows to act as moonlight, and he used a few other ingenious lighting tricks to create some gorgeous special effects which you must see for yourself to truly appreciate. Production manager Mindy Fay Parks and director Tiffany Keane meticulously designed every room of the church, from old, dusty bookshelves to spooky chandeliers. I felt completely engulfed in the world that had been created around me throughout the entirety of the production.
The actors also assisted in the immersion process, staying grounded in the emotional realities of the circumstances, for the most part. There were a few moments when some of the performances descended to melodramatic due to emotional or staging choices made by the actors, such as walking around on stage randomly when staying put would have been just fine. During these moments, the play lost some steam, but it quickly revamped, bringing the audience back into the fantasy world.
Mary-Kate Arnold does a spectacular job as Urania, the sultry French vampire. Resisting the temptation to sink into overacting, she instead communicates the stakes of her circumstances clearly and realistically. Arnold should also be commended for her role as dialect coach. Every actor speaks with a different accent, almost all of which are done perfectly.
Grace Gimpel, as Syla the innkeeper, has the particularly difficult job of playing a German character who has spent one year in the United States, and, as a result, speaks in a sort of limbo accent between German and American. Gimpel delivers the accent with total precision.
Moira Begale also has a challenging role as Philomena, the brash vampire hunter from the American West. Philomena often serves as comic relief, which can tempt an actor to abandon honest acting by itself, let alone when combined with the high stakes of fantasy. Begale resists this temptation completely, delivering her remarks with wit while keeping her feet on the ground.
One of the biggest aspects Gone Dark has going for it is the rarity of such a show. We’ve all seen vampire fight scenes in movies or on TV, but when was the last time you saw one live, mere feet from your face? Fight choreographer Justin Verstraete used the space to his advantage, staging the fights directly in front of the audience. Because there isn’t a screen separating you and the fight like there is in film, the stakes seem much higher and the adrenaline is impossible to ignore.
Even though it had a few faults, Gone Dark is a smart, well-acted and impeccably designed production that is sure to put you on the edge of your seat. If you’re looking for a show that will provoke intelligent thought, or a show that will change the way you view the world, then maybe Gone Dark isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a bloody good time, then Gone Dark is worth checking out.
Otherworld Theatre is staging the world premiere of Gone Dark through Nov. 22, Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. Performances are at the Epworth United Methodist Church (5253 N. Kenmore Ave.), a short walk from the Berwyn Red Line stop. Tickets are $20 at the door or online here.