In a narrow, dank room beneath MOTR Pub (seating about 60), you can take in a mournful, historically based ghost story told in song. Katie Hartman solemnly introduces herself as an academic and paranormal researcher. She lights votive candles, sets them around the small stage, then chants an incantation to conjure the ghost of Anna Morgan Haber. As the lights dim, she dons a long gingham dress, the last know possession of this woman from the 1860s.
She is “inhabited” by Anna, picks up an acoustic guitar and launches into a song, “Go West, Young Woman.” Thus begins Anna’s sad legend, told through 13 songs. Following the Civil War, she was teaching at a school in West Virginia. An acquaintance of her soldier brother proposed marriage and moved her with him to Western Kansas, a lonely desolate place, devoid of much human contact. She was captured by Cheyenne Indians, fell in love with a chief and had a child by him. But, as her doleful songs tell us, things didn’t go well: Soldiers returned her to her cold husband, her child was murdered and she disappeared — doomed to haunt the creek.
Katie Hartman is the solo performer of the song cycle that she and her husband Nick Ryan have crafted. She does little more than stand at a microphone, surrounded by the flickering candles, singing and strumming her guitar. (The space at MOTR Pub was hot and humid on opening night, which added to the close, clammy ambience of a ghost story, told around a campfire on a summer night.) But that’s enough: She has a powerful voice that can range from tender to powerful, from plaintive to vengeful, and she uses every aspect of it to tell the sad story of Anna-Wee, as the woman came to call herself. Several moments of powerful emotion are rendered with her head tilted back, singing in an unrestrained but musical howl, sometimes using sounds that convey feeling without words. When her child is born, a song expresses an optimistic sentiment, the hopeful notion of planting an orchard. But the story winds down unhappily, filled with grief and yearning. It’s a very moving 60 minutes.
Hartman and Ryan’s roots are in the Twin Cities, and they have worked with Four Humors Theater, a regular Fringe presence for several years (whose repertoire has included ghostly tales, too). White Woman Creek is not a stand-up-and-cheer kind of show: It’s artfully crafted and professionally delivered in an understated way. But it is powerfully effective. However, be forewarned that the performance space is uncomfortably warm and sightlines are not great: I recommend grabbing one of the barstools in the back for a better view of the stage.
LEGEND OF WHITE WOMAN CREEK by The Coldharts (Brooklyn, N.Y.) will be performed 7:30 p.m. June 1, 7:15 p.m. June 4, 7:30 p.m. June 6 and 5 p.m. June 7 at MOTR Pub (1345 Main St., Over-the-Rhine)