Fear and Brooding: Twain’s ‘Ghost Story’

Playbill art by Jeff G. Rack for Wicked Lit's production of "A Ghost Story"

Read Mark Twain’s A Ghost Story and you’ll get a hybrid tale that teases readers with all the clichéd elements of suspense but ends with one of the author’s signature lessons on human folly.

See the story adapted from page to stage in a 20-minute production by Los Angeles’ Wicked Lit theater company and you’ll get the same demarcated experience with more laughs, and with the lingering suspicion that something’s been lost in translation.

Dug from the ground of upstate New York in 1869, the Cardiff Giant held late-18th-century Americans rapt with the possibility that giants once walked the land. When the find was exposed as a hoax by its own raging success — a competitor reproduced a second for a touring show — the public was reminded that supernatural phenomena are best left to the imagination, not reality. Twain saw it as an ideal opportunity to remind us that, while illusions have their use, we’re far better off without them.

Jonathan Josephson, who adapted the story for Wicked Lit, seems well aware of the philosophical explorations the tale opens up. So instead of the story’s nameless protagonist, who meets a ghost in an abandoned Manhattan hotel, we get a Brown University psychology student.

Wicked Lit’s setting is ideal. The company imbued a small room tucked into the downtown Biltmore Hotel with pitch-perfect effects of pattering rain, creaking doors and torn curtains. When actor Michael Perl barrels through the doors after leaving his broken-down car by the road, we believe his panic. Even then, however, the frights progresses into bigger and bigger laughs, before Perl’s defining encounter.

The result is a bracing chamber piece that scares us through ideas, not sensation. But if we don’t get the full sense of Twain’s message — something best gained through the story itself — it’s nothing insurmountable. The play’s suspended ending hints at questions we should ask ourselves as walk toward the exit.

Director Paul Millet said it’s no mistake that Wicked Lit scheduled this production during the busiest week in Los Angeles theater of recent memory. But with one of the most established trade groups in American theater, Theatre Communications Group, setting up its convention in the very same hotel, there’s no denying the company  hit a sweet spot choosing its stage. It’s also a reminder that Los Angeles independent theater isn’t hibernating just because bigger beasts such as Hollywood Fringe and RADAR L.A. currently walk the land.

Don’t let the play’s humble time allotment fool you into thinking this is a lightweight affair. It won’t satisfy the heartier theater appetite, but it’s a savory starter.

A Ghost Story. Wicked Lit. Through Thurs., June 16. 818.242.7910. http://www.wickedlit.org

Ben Fulton

Ben Fulton, who writes about theater and other assorted arts matters for the Salt Lake Tribune, is an amateur violinist who still has not seen The Book of Mormon.

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