HOUSE OF STAIRS
By Jason Johnson-Spinos
Adapted from the book by William Warner Sleator
Outcry Theatre Company
Director - Jason Johnson-Spinos
Stage Manager - Elizabeth Cantrell
Choreographer - Becca Johnson-Spinos
Lighting Designer - Libby Jantz
Original Music and Sound Designer - Ryder Houston
Blossom - Marcy Bogner
Oliver - Apache Browne
Abigail - Samantha Garcia
Lola - Stori James
Peter - Adrian Theisen
Reviewed Performance: 7/15/2022
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In a basement at Yale University in the year 1961, a psychologist conducted human experiments on our willingness to torture one another. The result did not bode well for those harboring faith in humanity’s inherent goodness. This Milgram (aka just-following-orders) experiment revealed a depressingly commonplace capacity for man’s inhumanity to man. The study subjects were willing to electrically shock their putative fellow study subjects, who actually were actors pretending to be tortured.
Human experimentation is not allowed today, but such moral niceties do not exist in the dystopian hellscape of Outcry Theatre’s House of Stairs, adapted by playwright and director Jason Johnson-Spinos from a novel of the same name. In this future, those who are trashing the planet for profit have won. Don’t leave home without your gas mask.
Five sixteen-year-old orphans have been dumped in a disorienting and inhospitable space. The Breakfast Club thought they had problems? Johnson-Spinos says “hold my beer” to the late John Hughes. The set, in Addison Theatre Centre’s black box Studio Theatre, is the perfect stage for this engrossing play. The stark black and white palette, with stairs leading nowhere, serves up an unsettling, understated menace. That hole in the main platform doesn’t help.
The play opens with a shaking, terrified, and fragile Peter (Adrian Theisen). He removes his blindfold and sees nothing comforting. Theisen seizes the audience’s sympathy from the beginning. Peter’s anxiety is off the charts. He and most of the others never knew a home or a family. Peter has adopted a coping mechanism that maybe constitutes insanity. Serious mental illness at a minimum. Theisen makes it work.
Before long, Peter is joined by fellow hard-luck orphan Lola (Stori James). While Peter has made an art of retreat, Lola coped with harsh institutionalization by rebelling. Offense is the best defense. Lola also has self-knowledge. “You know what I’m like. How I talk. It doesn’t mean anything,” Lola says more than once. Both James and Theisen do a compelling and poignant job of following the arcs of two abused children holding onto the best of their humanity.
Peter and Lola find Blossom (Marcy Bogner), kneeling before a machine, which spits out a piece of food every time she sticks out her tongue and says “ahh.” Thus starts the man-against-machine theme. Who operates it? One pervasive mystery is what, exactly, is going on here. There is room for debating the issue of how to navigate the machine. The dispute among the characters morphs from what the machine is telling them into whether to acquiesce.
The machine is feeding them meat when it wants to. Blossom is the one character who knows what meat tastes like because she had a home and remembers her parents. Grass is a real thing, she enjoys explaining. Blossom is entitled, manipulative, and enjoys stirring up trouble. “It is a Blossom trick,” Lola argues at one point. Bogner does a good job displaying how Blossom relishes the upper hand.
Abigail (Samantha Garcia) has been beaten and abused into numbness. Garcia does a convincing job with the chilling metamorphosis of a malleable survivor. Oliver (Apache Brown) is naturally popular. His immediate reaction to a bad situation is to get the girls smiling and dancing. Brown also plays Peter’s former friend and protector Jasper. Brown toggles back and forth between the two different characters with seeming easy. Brown is a talent that makes it look easy.
The dystopian horror is interrupted by some amazing dancing. The machine apparently has some interesting demands. One strength of the play is that the machine’s motive is open for interpretation, and this unfolding mystery is something the audience shares with the characters. Did the characters get it right? Did you ever want to be a fly on the proverbial wall when some guy convinced the villagers they needed a human sacrifice to the rain/sun/war/fertility god?
The production value is, typical of Addison Theatre Centre, top-notch. The excellent sound system is important here, as the machine’s creepily ambiguous murmurs and belches are sometimes omnipresent. A beat emerges from the noise and turns into a musical score. The lighting enhances the oppressive lab rat effect. The wardrobe and machine coalesce around the color red as a thematic menace. Blossom’s costume is particularly impressive, as it displays childhood opulence and also is ripped before our eyes.
House of Stairs is both thought-provoking and riveting. It’s an impressive adaptation that holds the audience’s attention from the beginning. The audience is brought into the fold of the disquieting atmosphere and the plot keeps us on edge. By the middle of the second act, I felt like I was in a horror movie—the really good kind. The 2001 Space Odyssey kind. I highly recommend this production.
HOUSE OF STAIRS
Plays through July 24, 2022
Studio Theatre, Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Rd., Addison, TX 75001
For information and tickets go to https://www.outcrytheatre.com/house-of-stairs.html