‘Tis the season for horror. It’s powered by a simple spring: A ghost or zombie or disembodied arm leaps out at you from the dark, and you scream. Then you laugh with relief. And then scream again.
But some theatre artists go far beyond this. They don’t just multiply shocks and surprises. They explore the inner depths where horror resides in us, and give it poetic form.
Hold Me Tight – at Cal State LA
In 1933, a pair of French housemaids violently murdered their employer and her daughter, entering the annals of crime. The mystery-enshrouded story of the Papin sisters has been examined often — in the era’s journalism, in Genet’s play The Maids, in essays by Sartre and Lacan, and in several films.
This week, in a tiny theatre hidden in a Cal State LA music building, a small ensemble is again exploring the Papin sisters’ story. But this group, working together since January, uses different methods.
There is a stage. On it are a door and two sets of freestanding stairs. Off to one side stands a musician (Tintin Nguyen) at a keyboard. Into the space, gradually, come not one but two pairs of sisters — Jessica Miller and Hayley Hirsch, and Andrew Diego and Andy Her.
It’s not clear where or when in the story we have entered. But at first, it does seem clear that Miller and Diego are enacting (mostly dancing) the role of Christine, the dominant elder sister, while Hirsch and Her perform the younger, submissive Léa.
Soon, however, as scraps of voice-over narration emerge like fragments of memory, the performers are switching roles — and then partners — even taking turns portraying the ill-fated Mme. Lancelin and her daughter. Nothing is stable; everything is fluid.
With lullabyes and children’s songs, sudden bursts of percussion and shards of melody, we are pulled from moment to moment, from a building tension to lovers’ peace, then to the explosion of violence, then to calm, then guilty angst, then back again. The murder seems to explode into this murky world over and over, as the sisters seek to comfort one another, distressed equally by servitude and freedom.
Without dialog, but with speaking and singing voices, and cries, the scenes weave rhythmically in and out of one another. The dancing of the story — or, more accurately, of the sisters’ fluctuating psychic states — crawls, spreads, leaps and falls over every inch of the spare set with frightening invention.
Some scenes dramatize factual events — the sisters bathe one of the Lancelin women, the husband-father returns to find the debacle. Others create powerful fictional moments — an emcee auctions off the sisters at a “Price Is Right” slave sale, a maid endlessly feeds bon-bons to a linen-wrapped mistress who spits them out.
What all this adds up to, when it cycles to its end, is a profoundly unsettling telling of the sisters’ story.
Not bloody eye-gouging and fierce bludgeoning, suddenly erupting in a quiet bourgeois home. Not an incestuous love affair that descends into madness. That’s the easy way, the ride you can get at any spooky house.
Hold Me Tight is an hourlong plunge into the depths where true terror hides — inside our souls. It sends you without a guide into a maze of half-lit, noise-filled caves, sweeping you to heights of desire and then depths of despair, into longing and loss, into fury and fear. Into the turbulent chaos where two daughters of poverty struggle to find patterns, to comfort one another, to lash out, to make sense … and, ultimately, fail.
All the cast are dancers as well as actors, and they sing. They know their story and its physical setting well, and they know and trust one another. As a result, their story — as confusing and disturbing as it is — holds the audience rapt. Noise and light intrude from a nearby hall, but cannot distract us.
Director Naomi Bennett chose to work specifically on building an ensemble, and on devising non-linear and gender-fluid ways to tell a story, for her MFA. As a thesis project, Hold Me Tight is a resounding success. More than that, it is an intriguing, shocking, and stirring piece of theatre that deserves a place in the repertoire — for all seasons.
Hold Me Tight, created by the ensemble, directed by Naomi Bennett.
Presented by Not.Just.Theater. at the Arena Theatre, Cal State LA.
Tuesday (Oct. 21) and Wednesday (Oct. 22) at 7:00 pm.