“Every ghost story is kind of like a history lesson,” says the young woman identified as A History Major in The Great Lieutenant Sprinkle Didn’t Save Me, an intriguing new play by Jack Novak now appearing briefly in the tiny white box space CAOS on F. That line not only sums up what the play’s about; in Novak’s ingenious script, it also summons strange and paranormal echoes from DC’s actual past: In 1909 a police captain was shot to death by one of his officers at a substation on Capitol Hill. A few years ago at the same substation, a surveillance camera captured the image of a phantom police officer. Could it have been the ghost of the long-ago murdered police captain?
You can read about these incidents on the website Ghosts of DC (a real thing, I now know). From that curious source material—“Officer Sprinkle and the Haunted Police Station” by Tim Krepp—Playwright Novak has crafted a haunting tale as startling as it is fun.
The existing white-walled space at CAOS is the set. Upstage are the room’s three windows with white blinds closed. Overhead glare florescent lights, which go on and off abruptly, the sole light plot. On stage are positioned a desk, two chairs, and two video screens fed by several surveillance cameras. It’s a spare, blank slate set, and a most unlikely setup for supernatural effects.
Director Maureen Monterubio does a cagey job of drawing us in. A young man identified as An Unnamed Guard keeps night watch at his desk. He frets. He thinks he sees a shadowy figure on one of the monitors. He goes off stage to investigate. We observe his movements through corridors and other rooms as they are revealed on security camera (a nice touch). He finds nothing and returns to his desk. His wife, the History Major, drops by. He tells her what is or isn’t going on, and as it happens she’s a ghost buff. She has no fear, because she believes ghosts are harmless; ghosts just want to tell their story. Guard is not buying it. Before long they, and we, are ensnared in a darkening story that both tickles and chills.
The lighting in this substation, the Guard explains, is erratic; thus when the overhead lights go off as they often do, the stage is lit spookily only by the video screens. The program lists a third character, so you know this young couple will not be alone for long. Yet when in backlit darkness A Figure appears—the Guard and History Major unawares—it comes as quite a jolt.
The relationship between the ghost-busting spouses is charming. Emily Kester plays the nerdy History Major with a sweet spark, and Kevin Collins plays the dweeby Guard with earnest angst. Novak gives their characters some interesting angles to bounce off. Guard moved to DC so History Major could pursue her studies and she’s grateful, yet History Major wants Guard to have more ambition and not be so ineffectual—there’s a lot of recognizable detail about a new millennial marriage. Kester and Collins portray their characters’ affection and qualms with an affecting authenticity that nicely invites us into their story, and makes the mayhem to come seem all the more a disruption of their lives. Figuring prominently in that mayhem, of course, is the spectral Figure, and John Stange embodies him with both balletic grace and gruff menace.
Sound Designer Robert Pike has delivered a truly unnerving soundscape, one that evoked a level of stagecraft far beyond the resources of this small playing space. Lighting Designer Chris Holland seemed to have cast spells with bare bones lighting sources. Costume Designer Jennifer Salter created a very credible phantom cop. And Projections Designer Lauren Joy filled those video screens with storytelling imagery that was spellbinding.
With The Great Lieutenant Sprinkle Didn’t Save Me and this young company’s previous offering, Bigger Than You, Bigger Than Me, Field Trip Theatre seems to have found a unique niche in DC’s crowded theater landscale: Bright and original contemporary playwrighting, in smart small-scale productions, with fascinating connections to the District. For Bigger Than You, the connection was DC’s post-9/11 history. ForLieutenant Sprinkle, it’s DC’s history of ghosts.
Field Trip Theatre is full of surprises—and right now the one not to miss is The Great Lieutenant Sprinkle Didn’t Save Me.
Running Time: About one hour, with no intermission.