Editorial Review

A trio of exorcisms adds up to a devilishly good time

By Jane Horwitz
Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

Active Cultures Theatre has gone straight to the devil. The community-oriented troupe, based in Prince George's County, is doing three original one-acts just in time for Halloween under the title "HellSpawn: Plays the Devil Made Us Write." The inspiration is the same local legend said to have given William Peter Blatty the idea for "The Exorcist."

Performed in a gutted, evocative storefront space in Riverdale Town Center (the show is there through Saturday, then moves to Woolly Mammoth's rehearsal hall), the result is an often droll, if unevenly acted, trio of satanic tales.

The source for all three plays (and for Blatty's novel) is a 1949 news article about a 14-year-old boy in Cottage City who supposedly was possessed by the devil and was put through a priestly exorcism.

In the first playlet, "To Hell and Back," by April Brassard, we meet that boy, young Ronnie Harris, played by Max Jackson. Jackson is a sixth-grader with a gift for ironic line readings and a pretty daunting "devil" voice. When the priests (Mediombo Fofana and Steve Rosenthal) arrive, little Ronnie's inner Satan sneers, "Well, well, the Catholics are here."

The second play, "Never Have I Ever," by Jessica Burgess and Mary Resing, who is Active Cultures's artistic director, takes place across the street from Ronnie's house, but in 2011.

Three teenage girls are having a slumber party, and a game of truth-or-dare gets out of hand after they run across the street and knock on the door of the fabled exorcism house. When they return, one of them may be carrying Satan's child, and their prank grows briefly harrowing.

The young actresses playing the schoolgirls - Tiffany Garfinkle, Anastasia Wilson and particularly Dannielle Hutchinson as the tender new girl - give the most confident performances among the cast.

The third piece, "Rare Medium Well Done," a nifty bit of social satire by Alexandra Petri (a Washington Post writer), takes place in 2011 Chevy Chase. A couple (Elliott Kashner and Nayab Hussain) are fretting because an interviewer from Brown University (Jim Epstein) is coming to chat with their daughter, Argyll (Garfinkle). The problem is that Argyll is possessed. Dad hires a medium (Hutchinson) via Craigslist to exorcise the demon. She thinks contact lens solution can sub for holy water.

There's much wit in these three playlets, though the early performance this reviewer saw was rough. The evening is often a creepy/funny hoot, but when actors trip repeatedly over dialogue, that pulls us out of the moment. In keeping with Active Cultures's rough-and-ready aesthetic, the low-tech nature of the show is a clever joke in itself: A bed shudders clumsily - is someone under there jiggling it? The lights flicker, go out, then blaze again. Who's toggling that switch?

Yet to critique "HellSpawn" for failing to be a completely polished product seems churlish and misses part of the point. It's the grass-roots creativity and sense of let's-try-this-now that the Active Cultures people aim for.

Might "HellSpawn" be a good Halloween lark for kids? Well, "Never Have I Ever" gets a bit graphic, so perhaps for kids 12 or 13 on up.