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The Haunting of Hill House
Aux Dog Theatre

Also see Dean's reviews of November and Ash Tree

There's really only one relevant question when deciding whether to see The Haunting of Hill House: Is it scary? For this production at the Aux Dog Theatre, the answer is yes. It's just the kind of thing you want to see leading up to Halloween.

But it's a more genteel, refined, old-fashioned kind of scary, not like today's gory, slash-a-minute horror movies. There's a lot of exposition before things get rolling, then a lot of talking between the creepy special effects scenes, and even some comedic interludes. Still, you know that bad stuff is going to happen, so there's a more or less sustained tension throughout.

The play is by F. Andrew Leslie, based on a novel from the 1950s by Shirley Jackson, who is famous nowadays mainly for one story, "The Lottery." You might call the play a "psychological thriller," but I'd call it a haunted house tale, plain and simple. Unlike Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, there is little doubt here that something supernatural is going on—it's not just being imagined by one or two disturbed characters. Hill House really is acting on its own.

I was wondering how they would be able to pull off a haunted house story on a small stage with very limited resources. With imagination and a lot of craft, they did it. Apart from the actors, the stars of this production are sound designer John Hull, set designer John van der Meer, lighting designer John Aspholm, props designer Claudia Mathes, sound and light operator Sean Donovan, and the backstage crew of Naomi Hanauer, Aurora Couture, and Jason Wisener—all of them coordinated by director Lori Stewart. The music also contributes a great deal. It's not credited in the program, but I found out that it's mostly by a group called Midnight Syndicate, with a little dollop of Bernard Herrmann thrown in for good measure.

The plot is that a Dr. Montague has invited several people to help him with his research into the occult by staying with him for a week or so in Hill House, which is known to be evil and uninhabitable. Three people accept. One is the heir to the property and the other two are women who have ESP or other experiences with supernatural phenomena. The doctor's wife, who is a self-proclaimed psychic, and her friend Arthur show up later for a weekend, and they provide the comic relief.

Lori Stewart has assembled a good cast to fill these roles. Fawn Hanson is the lonely and unstable Eleanor, the one whom Hill House wants to possess. This is the kind of part that can beget frightful overacting, but Fawn keeps it for the most part realistic. Heather Donovan, new to Albuquerque, is Theodora, the one with ESP, and she also doesn't overplay her part, but boy, can she scream when she has to.

Brett Shane Cooley as Luke, the heir to the house, cuts an attractive figure on stage, but is saddled with an underwritten part. Ninette Mordaunt as Mrs. Montague whips in like a mini-tornado, and is super-animated and hilarious for every moment of her brief time on stage. John DuBois as Arthur has even less to do, but does it well. Catherine Hughes does an enjoyable turn as the poker-faced housekeeper.

The only actor I had a little problem with is Michael L. Miller. He plays Dr. Montague as an avuncular fellow, very low-key, and his hesitant line readings made it impossible for me to tell if this was an acting choice, a directing choice, or if he was simply having trouble remembering his next line. A more forceful and ambiguous portrayal (what are this guy's motives, really?) would have upped the creep factor considerably.

My only other quibble with the directing is that almost nothing was made of the sexual tension implicit in the set-up: Are Eleanor and/or Theodora lesbians? Is one or both of them attracted to Luke? Is Luke attracted to either one? Hints are dropped in the script that all of these scenarios are feasible, but I got very little indication that any of them were picked up on.

Still, I had a good time at the Aux Dog, and this production is worth seeing for the excellent effects that bring about those natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Goosebumps, I mean.

The Haunting of Hill House, a play by F. Andrew Leslie based on Shirley Jackson's novel, is being presented at the Aux Dog Theatre through October 31, 2012. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:00, special Halloween show at 8:00. Info at auxdog.com or 505-254-7716.

--Dean Yannias



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