A Scary Experience at Know Theatre

Of the two Halloween-related plays by veteran Fringe Festival performers now being staged, "13 Dead Dreams of 'Eugene' " is preferable for its subtle creepiness

click to enlarge Ghostly shadows permeate the production of "13 Dead Dreams of 'Eugene.' " - PHOTO: PROVIDED
PHOTO: Provided
Ghostly shadows permeate the production of "13 Dead Dreams of 'Eugene.' "

If you like to be spooked, Know Theatre is ready to serve up several servings of extended Halloween-season creepiness, courtesy of veteran Fringe Festival performers.13 Dead Dreams of “Eugene” was created and is performed by Paul Strickland and Erika Kate MacDonald, a pair of popular Cincy Fringe and Know regulars. Ricky Coates was part of the Fringe in 2016 and his contribution for this seasonal double-bill is three Zombie tales: A Zombie Odyssey, Ides of Undead March and Daughter of the Dead

Fringe artists tend to be willing to push themselves and their materials farther than traditional theater, and that’s certainly true of these pieces on Know’s MainStage. Dead Dreams is presented in almost total darkness, using a few lamps and a sheet to provide spooky shadow effects, plus small handheld flashlights for further ghostly images. MacDonald and Strickland narrate the piece as if it’s been a personal experience — and it was, at least partially. They happened on Sabina, Ohio, an hour from Cincinnati, a few years back and learned about the embalmed body of an unidentified man, found dead in a rural ditch in 1929. For 35 years his body was on display in a funeral home outbuilding, theoretically in hopes someone might identify him. But he became a roadside attraction for curiosity seekers. Eventually local residents took pity and buried him in 1964. 

Dubbed “Eugene” — although his real name and history were never located — his story continues to be told and Strickland and MacDonald use it as a springboard for their show, never drawing a firm boundary between the facts and their inventive overlay. They explain that residents of Sabina shared dreams that might have been motivated by the ghost’s restless search for identity. A dozen dreams, told with flickering lights, fevered narration and several original songs (“I Lost My Mind,” “Sometimes Everything’s Supposed to Feel Strange,” “The Jacket” and “Water Under the Bridge”) are threaded together in the 60-minute performance. The 13th dream has special meaning.

Some dreams are impressionistic pieces without words; in one, we travel into a pint of beer and a crystal ball. Others relate fantastic tales, including the story of a whistle-maker who carves skulls into whistling orbs and another about a mother and father who cry tears of 80-proof alcohol. Dreams are linked by rangy, recorded narration by a man claiming the ghost of “Eugene” possessed him and guided his hands to type his story. His repeated query: “Who am I?”

A parallel yearning for understanding is at the core of Coates’ A Zombie Odyssey, a one-actor monologue. A man named Brian dies in a car accident, but strange forces resurrect his body. Some of his consciousness remains, and he vacillates between being horrified by what he has become and driven toward flesh-eating behavior. (I saw this episode following Dead Dreams on opening night; these performances are presented in rotating repertory with Coates’ other two episodes. Each performance is separately ticketed. 

Coates is a vividly physical performer, and his show is enhanced with wince-inducing visuals and sound effects. His portrait of zombie behavior involves eating discarded diseased tissue and worse, replete with dripping gore. (In fact, Know is issuing a warning to ticket-buyers about the “splash zone” in the front row, including laundry instructions for the removal of stage blood.

I know that the TV series The Walking Dead — and all things zombie — are eaten up (forgive me) by enthusiastic fans, and I expect they will relish the stories Coates has created. (Daughter of the Dead features Sadie Bowman, another Fringe veteran and a former Know Theatre employee.) A Zombie Odyssey was over-the-top for me, but Coates is an accomplished actor and he delivers a no-holds-barred 60 minutes of terrifying action. If such tales are your thing, you’ll want to see all three episodes.

I happen to prefer the subtle creepiness of Dead Dreams, telling stories that worm their way into your subconscious and linger long after the lights come up. One way or another, Know’s seasonal-entertainment offering has some tantalizing tricks and treats in store.

13 Dead Dreams of “Eugene” and A Zombie Odyssey are in rotating repertory at Know Theatre through Saturday. Tickets/more info: knowtheatre.org

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