Entertainment » Theatre

The Silence in Harrow House

by Christine Malcom
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Oct 7, 2019
A production photo for "The Silence in Harrow House." Puppet: Vincent Adler. Designed by Grace Needlman. Puppeteer: Felix Mayes
A production photo for "The Silence in Harrow House." Puppet: Vincent Adler. Designed by Grace Needlman. Puppeteer: Felix Mayes  (Source:Evan Barr)

"The Silence in Harrow House", Rough House Theater Co.'s follow-up last years popular and critical success "The Walls of Harrow House," is not only a wonderfully creepy kick-off to the Halloween season, it's a highly successful collaboration among artists of a number of different stripes, and an intelligently executed movable theater experience.

Rough House could hardly have found a better venue for the show in the Chopin. The audience begins by collecting a black surgical mask and a program with a latter welcoming the "Esteemed Investors" to architect Milton Harrow's home and studio, and thanking them for investing in Harrow's vision of a society improved by the Golden Trinity of "1. Harmony through silence. 2. Peace through order. 3. Beauty through essentialization."

A brief "orientation" to the experience takes place as the audience lounges in scattered conversation groups on a mishmash of ornate vintage furniture in the Chopin's basement bar area. Here, the firm's "Director of Presentation" conveys the minimal rules of the experience (touch only appropriately labeled objects, maintain silence), deftly weaving these into the story. Audience members then enter in staggered groups according to numbers on their programs.

Once inside, guests wander freely interacting with text, audio, and the puppets, which range from whole-body rigs to nightmarish body parts that scurry freely in and out of curtained-off areas and through the crowd of audience members. Although the intention is for the experience to be unique to each individual, rather than comprehensive, music and ambient sound, as well as interactions among the puppet characters serve to offer minimal direction to audience members (and to other "characters") to keep them looping through the space and accessing new areas as they open up.

Although the space is not large, many of the performances behind scrims, as well as through grotesque boxes with distorting glass change to unfold the story further as the 45-minute experience goes on. Similarly, the "cast of characters" grows, shifts, and ultimately unravels. The narrative culminates with the audience gathered 360 degrees around the center shadow box, where the characters turn on one another.

All told, the story by Mark Maxwell and Claire Saxe is relatively minimal. Taped snippets of an autopsy, the call and response of a 911 call, and first-person testimonies delivered via old-fashioned listening tubes convey supernatural horrors visited upon an array of true believers and unwilling victims of Harrow's search for perfection.

The physical aspects of the production are incredible. Mike Oleon, who conceived the show and directs, is also credited with the scenic and puppet design, with lead puppet design by Grace Neediman. The light fixtures throughout the space blend an arts and crafts aesthetic with sinister suggestions of agonized faces. The "character" puppets, with their sculpted mask-like faces are as unnerving as the skittering body-part and child puppets, especially when the masks literally come off.

The cast, in puppeteers' black, down to steam-punk goggles, are astonishingly skilled with these grotesque creations. The puppets themselves are further augmented by Caitlin McLeod's creepily timeless costumes.

It's doubtful that the experience would function as it needs to, though without the manipulation of light and sound. David Goodman-Edberg's lighting design contributes to the sense that the space is larger and more labyrinthine than it actually is. Corey Smiths' sound design is somehow simultaneously unobtrusive and relentless, raising things to a fevered pitch to signal the end of one "act" and the beginning of the next.

"The Silence in Harrow House" runs through November 10 at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division, Chicago. For tickets, visit RoughHouseTheater.com

Christine Malcom is a Lecturer in Anthropology at Roosevelt University and Adjunct Faculty in Liberal Arts and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is a physical anthropologist, theater geek, and all-around pop culture enthusiast.


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