In Theatre Vertigo's Stupid Ghost, the apparitions aren't intentionally scary. Yes, they are draped in the usual menacing white sheets, but they don't want to frighten anyone—they are content to chill and listen to the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," and they would never harm a living person. Not on purpose, at least.
Written by Savannah Reich, Stupid Ghost is a prickly play that demands a cast capable of finding moments of deadpan wit within an unsettling tale of isolation, stalking and child abuse. It's a challenge that director Devon Roberts and Vertigo ensemble members meet with the appropriate guts, grace and goofiness, creating a production that is as delightful as it is spooky.
Stupid Ghost stars Jacquelle Davis as Ghost, a wayward spirit fascinated with a teenage girl named Ronnie (Kaia Maarja Hillier). Ghost's infatuation initially seems innocent—trapped in limbo, she can't help but yearn for flesh-and-blood experience. Yet her lust for Jean-Pierre (London Bauman), Ronnie's dashing but dopey suitor, is the first of many signs her affection is a prelude to possessive, obsessive fervor.
It's easy to imagine Reich's play being sundered by a larger theater company eager to goose the audience with expensive, creepy special effects. Theatre Vertigo has done the opposite—the set is a black void with little more than a door and a few chairs. The production's minimalism elegantly evokes the loneliness of the characters, including Ronnie, who spends much of the play imprisoned in her room, like a 21st century Rapunzel.
Reich's sense of humor is harder to pin down, but the actors capture its peculiar essence by refusing to beg for the audience's laughter—especially Davis, whose unflagging perkiness clashes hilariously with the tale's horrific turns. Her painfully earnest delivery of Ghost's most memorable line ("Ghosts are nice") is particularly funny when contrasted with the climax, during which Ghost practically abducts Jean-Pierre and the dastardly Poltergeist (Tom Mounsey) chases after Ronnie while riding a bicycle and wearing a floral-print dress.
If you view the ghosts as a marginalized community, it's possible to see Stupid Ghost as a representation of a society rigged so that its most vulnerable citizens always lose, no matter how determined they are to play by the rules. When Ghost's desire to connect with Ronnie and Jean-Pierre transforms her into the troublemaking spirit she has sworn never to become, it isn't a random tragedy—it's the logical result of the hand she has been dealt.
Stupid Ghost is short enough that some audiences may feel unfulfilled. Yet the play packs more jokes, scares and social commentary into roughly an hour than many productions fit into two. The ghosts (and their living counterparts) may be stupid, but Reich is a gratifyingly intelligent writer whose work says as much about this world as it does about the next.
SEE IT: Stupid Ghost is at the Shoebox Theater, 2110 SE 10th Ave., theatrevertigo.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Friday and Sunday, 7:30 and 9:30 pm Saturday, through Jan. 25. $10-$20.