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Halloween is a time to celebrate the unexplained and/or supernatural, but fright and danger can just as easily originate from the better demons of our corruptible human nature. This season, Planet Ant Theatre delights in a manmade horror show in Nightmare Box, an assortment of original short plays by local writers. Not quite it-could-happen-to-YOU cautionary tale, but certainly not a bloodbath for its own sake, the production is an examination of the dark and depraved motivations of people who could, at first, almost pass for normal.

The structure of this two-act play intersperses the title piece, a hero’s journey to prevent a mystery-shrouded event of mythical proportions, among half a dozen stand-alone vignettes. Playwrights Dave Davies, Margaret Edwartowski, Kelly Rossi, Marke Sobolewski, and Shawn Handlon (who also directs) present a handful of characters and scenarios that seem far removed from real life, but each has a kernel of humanity at its core that makes it — if improbable — still frighteningly believable. As the production was created via a call for submissions, it’s understandable that the resulting show is a bit at a loss for unifying tone. A grab bag of styles ranges from aggressive confrontation to feather-light black comedy to unveiling intimate horror; twist endings and staggering reveals abound. Although the production has a few gory surprises in store, the intrigue relies in large part on story and character, preying on emotional and intellectual fear responses rather than resorting to shock value.

An ensemble cast of five plays multiple roles. Among them, Michael Carnow’s deranged man seeking companionship seems gently sad as he attempts to play both sides of a conversation. Jill Dion and Alysia Kolascz do particularly effective work as sisters in tandem for one scene; elsewhere, Dion is chilling as a woman willing to go to any lengths to regain her husband’s affection, and Kolascz takes command in one scene, creating an amusing power imbalance. Playing perpetrators and victims alike, Keith Kalinowski stands out with his grossly pitiable captive, intent and insistent older brother, and agonized husband characters. Pete Podolski makes physical his pointed silences, heightening the tension of an adversary whose motives are unknowable. Demonstrating a clear sense for what each chapter needs in order to be effective, Handlon coaxes everything from deceptively humdrum to grotesque from his performers, yet each time he pinpoints the relatable human flaws that, when magnified, produce the fantastical results that play out onstage.

Technical elements supplement the action, but are rarely the main attraction. In a scene with influences beyond the grave, Michael Williams’s dissonant lighting gives all the clues necessary for immediate comprehension of the scenic device. Props by Inga Wilson invite close examination in the intimate Planet Ant venue, and a few marvelously executed special effects are nearly stomach churning. A holdover from the prior production, the nondescript set mainly stays out of the way; limited furnishings are a requirement given the multiple settings, costume changes, and effects setups. Before and during the show, pervasive religious-demonic incidental music (think The Omen) is an effective primer that suits the myth of the Nightmare Box as it plays out. As with any show this heavy on cues, some are bound to go awry; here, the bulk of the effect doesn’t rely on these externals, so the momentum of the scene is generally not derailed.

The sum total of the production is admittedly disjointed, with eerie, funny, and disturbing moments struggling to form a coherent whole. Yet viewed from another angle, Nightmare Box offers a little taste of everything, any kind of scare you care to think of short of yelling "BOO!" For viewers seeking a quiet anxiety reminiscent of The Twilight Zone without huge production values, this modest show delivers it through sharp writing and attention to mood and tone.


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