Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Strange Tenants
Sam Tower + Ensemble / Philadelphia Fringe Festival
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule


Nia Benjamin, Bi Jean Ngo, Tess Kunik,
and Merri Rashoyan

Photo by Kate Raines, Plate 3 Photography
The sense of impending doom that suffuses Sam Tower + Ensemble's Strange Tenants begins before the house lights go down. Behind the rows of suspended corn stalks we see the walls of the house on Ester Lake outlined by rope, string and salt—a structure so delicate it seems like one clumsy misstep could pull down the entire facade.

Strange Tenants is about four friends who reunite at that house a decade after some secret happening scattered them to the wind. But that is just the surface. Playwright Jeremy Gable's dark thriller is also about the long dark shadow cast by sexual abuse and shame. It is about the facade we put on for others and the lies we tell ourselves. About the expectations society puts on women, and what happens when they cannot or do not want to meet those expectations.

Gable embraces the tropes of classical gothic horror stories and modern horror films, but offers up a full sensory experience that is uniquely unsettling: creative staging and jarring choreography; erie music and abrasive sound effects; uncomfortable dialogues and gut-wrenching flashbacks. During one particularly scary moment a strong wind seems to bow the whole cast over in a wave of metallic sound and red light. The talented ensemble leverages all these elements to create an authentic sense of dread.

Nia Benjamin's (Enid) unsettling opening number oscillates between The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Night of the Living Dead, but the quiet moment with that teddy bear and the marshmallows is the stuff of nightmares. Bi Jean Ngo (Honey) has a disturbingly saccharine smile and convulsions so violent they look painful. Ngo and Tess Kunik (Faye) act out violent scenes as both victim and attacker with devastating effect. Merri Rashoyan (Shannon-Lee) is marvelously sweet and sinister.

There is still room for improvement. The sense of tension which builds steadily for the first 60 minutes falters a bit in the last half hour. A series of reveals feels forced and dispels a hard-earned sense of otherworldly mystery in favor of something more conventional. Fortunately, the missteps are minor and the play builds to a conclusion that is satisfyingly gruesome. Strange Tenants will put a knot in your stomach and a chill up your spine. It is a feminist Hitchcock thriller with singing and dancing. And it is exquisite.

Strange Tenants is part of the 2017 Philadelphia Fringe Festival and runs through September 17, 2017, as the Power Plant Productions Basement, 233 North Bread Street, Philadelphia PA 19106. For tickets go to fringearts.com..

Co-Creators/Performers
Nia Benjamin: Enid
Bi Jean Ngo*: Honey
Tess Kunik: Faye
Merri Rashoyan: Shannon-Lee
Katie Croyle: Natalie
Eliana Fabiyi: Crow

Creative Team: Director: Sam Tower
Playwright: Jeremy Gable
Dramaturg: Katie Croyle
Original Music and Sound Design: Alec Maclaughlin
Set Design: Kevin Meehan
Lighting Design: Alyssandra Docherty
Costume Design: Sam Tower
Production Stage Manager: Maya Neville
Assistant Stage Manager: Franny Mestrich
Associate Producer: Eliana Fabiyi
Sound Engineer: Sam Rosen

*Appears Courtesy Of Actors' Equity Association All Material Generated Collaboratively With The Ensemble.


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