Review: The Coil Project’s ‘Strange Tales: Paradise Motel’ at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop

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Seasonally-themed evenings of short plays are a staple for smaller theater companies – and with Halloween just weeks away, The Coil Project offers up a quartet of violent and supernatural one-acts in Strange Tales: Paradise Motel. The setup is simple: a dingy, sparsely decorated motel room hosts a series of guests who come to unfortunate ends, with a ghostly pair of housekeepers (Katie Wanschura and Rebecca Fischler) playfully cleaning up the mess in between.

The bill is bookended with two pieces by Erica Smith. The first, Wake-Up Call, features a pair of smalltime crooks, veteran thug Castor (Rebecca Rose Vassy) and newbie cat burglar, Reed (Amanda Zeitler) hiding out after their first caper together. They have a stolen car in the parking lot, some goods to fence tomorrow, and once some unseen spirits start to whisper in their ears, a lot less trust between them. While effectively paced, there are few surprises.

The next story, Honeymoon Suite, by Coil’s Co-Artistic Director Andy De, is a noirish psychological thriller. After reconnecting at a wedding reception, Danny (De) drives his ex, Beth (Melani Finney) to her motel room. The two broke up while Danny was caring for his dying brother, and Beth seems eager to reconcile. Beth reminds Danny of her rule about no cell phones in the bedroom and directs his attention to her portable safe. It isn’t long before she is spouting off buzzwords taken from a self-help book on having a healthy relationship. While it may be obvious in such a short piece that Beth is using the language of intimacy in a manipulative manner, one can’t help but wonder how Danny can be so dopey that he had not figured out Beth’s gaslighting behavior long before the seemingly chance encounter at the reception? Nonetheless, De’s script does ratchet up the suspense before reaching the conclusion.

The most effective offering of the evening is another supernatural gangster story, Housekeeping by Andrew Quilpa and Erik Harrison (The Coil’s other co-artistic director). Once again, two criminals are hiding out after a score. Though they are using nomsdeguerre Nine (Michael Silver) and Ten (Torin Lusebrink) they do know each other. Crime is the family business and Nine is Ten’s Uncle Gabe, and their boss, One (Jon Lewin) is Ten’s father. They just took out Villa Lobos, a rival crime boss rumored to have magical powers, and stole massive amounts of cocaine. Ten also snagged Villa Lobos’ ukulele. The problem is that Nine took a bullet in his calf and Ten may have been positively identified by a surviving witness. But this being a family business, it’s also family drama – One and Nine are products of toxic masculinity and Nine can’t help but see his college-educated nephew as effete, wondering why he would even return home. Lusebrink’s performance is affably geeky – it helps that in an evening where most of the characters are recognizable genre archetypes, Quilpa and Harrison have chosen to put the sort of character one expects to see in a light-hearted farce in the middle of a crime drama.

Up to this point, Director Eric Cline takes a straight-ahead approach with the formula of the haunted motel room but shakes things up with a flashback to the heist that left Nine wounded, Ten with a four-string and Villa Lobos and his gang dead. Choreographed as a stylized dumbshow and lit in a chiaroscuro of red and black by Patrick Mullen, the effect is striking but none of the other violence quite compares. Even though Honeymoon Suite has some very creative choices in terms of stage violence, it looks like Mullen could use an extra few hours of rehearsal time with De and Finney to really sell it, and nowhere else is Mullen allowed to experiment so much with color and shadow.

In the final act, Extended Stay, we learn the names of the ghostly cleaning staff: Rosanna (Wanschura) and Sullivan (Rebecca Fischler)–as they gossip about the fates of the characters from the previous acts. When another guest (Quilpa), clad in a leather jacket and a bloodstained shirt, comes through the door, sobbing and collapsing exhausted on the bed, the spooks find themselves rather taken with him, and begin to speculate about what has led him to this moment in this room. Much as humans in supernatural fiction might dispute the belief in ghosts until it is confirmed, Smith asks what sort of creature ghosts might have trouble believing in?

Sound Designer Rich Frangiamore does an excellent job making the disembodied voices of the murdered move through the room and has also assembled a spooky playlist of blues and country-influenced swamp rock from Dorothy, Brown Bird, Monica Heldal and others.

Strange Tales is an evening of genre entertainment; the tropes are played straight without deconstruction or subversion. The audience can usually see what’s coming long before the characters get a clue; the suspense is less about what will come next and more about when will it finally come, and Halloween is the time of year for that.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Strange Tales: Paradise Motel plays through October 13 at The Coil Project at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase at the venue or order online.

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