Review: ‘Ghost Light’ by Parlor Room Theater

A play is ephemeral. The written words momentarily dance off the page as they are given body and voice, transformed into experience, and witnessed by an audience. The conclusion arrives, the play is over, but what remains?

Mo O’Rourke in Parlor Room Theater’s ‘Ghost Light.’ Photo by Frank DiSalvo, Jr.

Live performance is in the moment. It’s not a commodity you can take home with you, or put it in your pocket, or enjoy at a later date. Ghost Light, a new play written and directed by Frank DiSalvo Jr., entices you to think about the very nature of creativity. With a few theater traditions, superstitions, and myths tucked into its fabric, Ghost Light explores the power and nature of belief.

Ghost Light is set in an abandoned theater about to open its long-closed doors to a new production of Hamlet. As Derren, played by Robert Pike, walks onstage he is lit only by a single incandescent bulb. It is a ghost light, a moveable light left on when a theater is unoccupied or completely dark. The light reveals the nooks and crannies. It is meant to prevent accidents and to guide any cast or crew member working late. It is said, and a long known superstition, that every theater has a ghost, and the ghost light provides opportunities for them to perform on stage, appeasing them and keeping them from sabotaging the production. Ghost Light takes its shape from these traditions while bringing a new twist to the ‘play within a play’ framework.

Derren has been cast in this production of Hamlet, and as other cast members assemble (namely Mary, played by Amy Leigh Horan, and JT, played by Thomas DiSalvo), they question the legitimacy of the production. Have they been duped? As actors, they have been disappointed, marginalized, left wanting more, or had opportunities slip from their grasp. Once Sage, the producer, played by Mo O’Rourke, presents the first paycheck, however, they are convinced that the pursuit is worth their time.

The Hamlet rehearsal process gets a shaky start as the actors realize they must adjust their expectations. Virgil, from the town historical society, played by Emberlein DiSalvo, welcomes them by repeating the story of Elrick Black, who by accident met his death on this very stage. Virgil shockingly utters the name “Macbeth” in her farewell, unwittingly defying the superstition that the word is cursed. (Any thespian will tell you: Never say Macbeth in the theatre for it is known to bring bad luck. The euphemism “The Scottish Play” is used instead.) As Virgil’s slip sets off unintended consequences, we in the audience, as well as the characters onstage must decide how to follow along.

The actors take on increasing breadth as the rehearsals of the play within a play continue. Amy Leigh Horan as Mary talks about the difficulties of surviving in New York and reveals a credible vulnerability. We learn about Derren’s gift for speaking and how and why his path was altered. Robert Pike as Derren conveys an authentic presence and enhances the few moments where physicality comes to play. He is someone you could know or approach easily. Thomas DiSalvo portrays the role of JT as a guy comfortable with taking the easy way out, falling from one thing to the next with his cell phone in his pocket, earbuds dangling and a snack in hand. Director Frank DiSalvo often places actors far apart while speaking. It would be nice if the characters could draw nearer for the bodies to more completely illustrate the thought in mind.

Thomas DiSalvo and Mo O’Rourke in ‘Ghost Light.’ Photo by Frank DiSalvo, Jr.

Lighting by Dean Leong accents the black box space of the Callan Theatre and the flickering ghost light as it sculpts a face or a posture. Costumes by Julie Cray Leong disclose a glimpse of temperament and reward us in the culminating moment of the play within a play Hamlet. Set design by Ember DiSalvo gives the feeling of an aging structure with small shapes of crumbling brick. Sound design by Frank DiSalvo Jr. eases transitions from one scene to the next, but is at times is slightly out of place with loud bursts of rhythmic pulse.

Ghost Light is original material and Parlor Room Theater is to be commended for taking the risk of imagination to its ultimate place by making something substantial from an initial thought. Performance is ephemeral but process and experience may remain in memory, a part of you forever.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 10 minute intermission

Ghost Light plays through June 2, 2019, by Parlor Room Theater at Callan Theatre in the Hartke Theatre Complex, Catholic University, 3801 Harewood Road NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.