Tales from ILM

Oct 16 • ARTSY SMARTSY, TheaterNo Comments on Tales from ILM

Friday Food and Fright Night
19 S. 10th Street • (910) 399-3NOW
10/19, 26, 11/2 • 6:30 p.m.
$32-$38 • www.theatrewilmington.com

Anthony Corvino, Susan Auten and Jacob Keohane in ‘Friday Food and Fright Night.’ Photo by Shea Carver

I’ll admit—dinner theatre carries many stereotypical expectations: Cheesy tales told by overacting thespians with mediocre food served to a rather mature crowd, all of whom inevitably fall asleep in their lamb and mint jelly before Act II ends. OK, OK—maybe I watched “Soapdish” a bit too much as a kid! While dinner theatre has never been my bag of chips—mainly because I like to relish every morsel of a fine meal over good conversation and company, just as I prefer to take in every local performance with unabashed attention and care, not interrupted by glass refills—since TheatreNOW opened, I have to say they’re swaying me to their acting-and-eating-simultaneously side of the fence. What’s wrong with having your ghost stories over Pumpkinhead crème brûlée and eating it, too? Nothing, I tell you—nothing!

Having just opened their October show, written and directed by local thespian Anthony David Lawson, who also happens to be acting in the play, “Friday Food and Fright Night” dinner theatre revolves around everything haunting, from Chef Denise Gordon’s inventive menu, to the script of the play, to the lighting and mien of the beautiful TheatreNOW space. It all welcomes folks comfortably and not just into an entertaining evening but one tackling our city’s and region’s lore quite chillfully, too.

The show involves a group of college students, Charles (Anthony Corvino), Mary (Susan Auten) and Jason (Jacob Keohane), who ascend on what they think is a deserted house in the middle of nowhere to stay the night. Their psychology professor has challenged them to remain turned off from the world—no cell phones, computers, newspapers, books or techy thingamajigs—for extra credit. Once entering, they stumble upon an old book of ghost stories. As they begin flipping through it, they come to “Phantom Hitchhiker,” a story that Charles says is the oldest in the book. When challenged to tell his own ghost story since he knows so much, he bumbles and stumbles, making the eeriness of it all fall completely flat. Nary a chill is raised on the arms of his cohorts—until “Creepy Guy” appears out of nowhere. Played by Lawson, Creepy Guy lives in this worn-down house, speckled by cobwebs, skulls, ever-so-ripped old furniture, and a couch with a missing leg, which is held up by vintage books. To the students’ shock, Creepy Guy manages to grasp their attention over the makings of a great ghost story, which he says lie in its historical appeal and in the performance of its raconteur.

Lawson is the heart of the show. He carries it through and through on every front. And what a great raconteur he is! Every time he takes the stage, he commands each story with vast knowledge, ease, and a slight baritone perfect for eerily driving home the main points. He goes through local myths as if he wrote them, but the fact is he’s comfortable with the material thanks to experience leading the Ghost Walk of Wilmington, where many of the stories are told. Folks will hear all about the hidden souls which lurk on the streets, from Samuel Jocelyn getting buried alive to the decapitation of train conductor Joe Baldwin, who continues roaming the tracks in “Maco Light.” Yet, Lawson also peppers the show with his own creative liberty, adding a story he grew up hearing about a wayward soul named Lydia who died on prom night, and continues lurking an old NC bypass to try and find her way back home. Folks will find themselves questioning the streets they live on as they hear about Wilmington’s foundation in the 1500s, yet learn the first cemetery wasn’t built until the 1700s. That means quite a lot of properties could sit atop the resting place of the dead. Though Lawson admits not everything in the show is historically proven, the speculation alone (and the numerous people in town who can confirm ongoing, unexplained phenomena) will keep the mystery of it all rather engaging.

Lawson’s co-stars do a good-enough job as the posts of the show; they hold up the movement in all the right places. Honestly, though, none compare in verbosity to Lawson. Auten comes closest in having a haunting vocal pitch. Her seriousness as an actor also makes her storytelling more intense; it serves her well in “Fright Night.”

Jacob Keohane plays the easy-going jokester Jason. He’s the guy who doesn’t take anything seriously and assigns nicknames, like good ol’ Charlie Boy, which teeter on deprecation. His body language proves more than anything his character’s demeanor, as he props his feet up on the couch and starts snooping.

Anthony Corvino is doing his second run for TheatreNOW. In last month’s “The Miracle Workers” he was wildly entertaining as the overzealous intern Leo. In “Fright Night” his “good-ol’ Charlie Boy” runs parallel to the same descriptors: quirky, over-the-top, only a bit more goofy and nerdy this go ‘round. I’d like to see more of his range during his next show.

The special effects TheatreNOW hold in its holster remain impressive. The show opens with thunder and lightning illuminating the stage in a staccato manner. The drop screen shows a fireplace when the students are situated in the living area; it moves through spooky pictures to mirror the stories being told. It works best when the photos are of actual historical reference to Wilmington and not just from a pulled file which could go with any story. The music playing upon entrance is gorgeously moving: huge crescendos and diminuendos of classical pieces. The only way it could be better is if it were performed live. However, “Fright Night” is not a musical, which makes it odd that some songs streamed over the stories the actors told, often drowning them out during the show. It’s a tech issue I am sure will be fixed next weekend.

The food at TheatreNOW throws a wrench in expectation of dinner theatre. It’s a really nice addition to our culinary scene. Folks should get out to try some of Gordon’s comfort cuisine. It’s not necessarily fine dining, but it takes chances and remains tasteful, which is what matters most. I love her Bat’s Blood Beet Soup—admittedly one of my favorite vegetables (beets, not bats). Its tastes are rich, as the earthy roots pair with a crème fraîche cobweb swirl, and the warm purée surprises in an afterbite of spicy, peppery heat. Mrs. Lovett’s Meat Pie remains a filling of ground beef, even with the more fatty and grisly bites that leave me questioning it rather gloriously (would love to see this made with offal meat!). Paired with chunks of garlic and parsnips/rutabagas in a flaky pastry dough, along with a truffle pea purée atop (although the truffle did not come through), its a reminder why meat pie is great cool-weather food. The Pumpkinhead crème brûlée makes for a sweet ending with a perfectly burnt crisp and a cool, creamy center; though, the pumpkin flavor could be more pronounced.

More impressive is how the show works in the timing of each course, so folks know what’s coming yet aren’t bothered by forks hitting plates as additional sound effects. All combine for a lovely evening, though not so much frightful as fun. And without mint jelly.

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