Haunting the House

Improbable Theater fabricates a poltergeist out of tape and mystery

POLTERGEISTS HOLD A unique place within the supernatural world. As metaphysical Martha Stewarts, these restless spirits enjoy rearranging furniture and other household objects, an activity that tends to create much confusion, not to mention fear, among the living. Phelim McDermott, a founding member of England's 4-year-old Improbable Theater troupe, experienced his own "Polty" at the age of 15 when something invaded his Manchester home and began tossing about knickknacks. The mayhem lasted for three days, until McDermott's parents returned from a trip, at which point the ghost took its leave, never to visit again.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and the experience is now a central element in 70 Hill Lane, an autobiographical work that has received critical acclaim from New York to Cairo and now kicks off the Walker Art Center's Out There series of experimental performance, opening this weekend at the Southern Theater. McDermott remains at a loss as to why his childhood home proved an attractive playground for a poltergeist, but his 70 Hill Lane provides a stream-of-consciousness narrative that touches upon the issues of family and plain survival that haunt us all with a similar intensity.

"The show [offers] a number of propositions of what the poltergeist might be: adolescent energy coming off me, or maybe a ghost," explains McDermott by phone from London. "I do believe there are strange energies flying around. I visited my parents at Christmas, and there were strange things not being said. I've had intense periods when I thought Polty was still there, but really the closest I've come is through synchronicity-type of events." In the end, says McDermott, the piece actually deals with "ideas everyone has about the house they grew up in. You carry this particular house with you for the rest of your life."

McDermott and Improbable Theater bring their own uncanny powers of animation to 70 Hill Lane in the form of some nontraditional puppetry. Sticky tape and newspapers are all Guy Dartnell, Steve Tiplady and McDermott require to vivify a house, a poltergeist--or even McDermott's grandmother hooked up to an IV drip in the hospital. Prior works have used rubbish, bits of foam, and even wicker baskets to tell the tale of Don Quixote. The members of Improbable, who have been working together in some capacity or other on the "fringe" of British theater for upwards of 10 years, also relish the whims of fate that accompany their unconventional material choices.

"There's usually some element that's not within our control. The mistakes that happen are most interesting," says McDermott. "We break the puppetry rules. We don't wear black. We're impostors, not real puppeteers," he continues with a laugh, hastening to add that puppetry tends to have a "ghetto mentality" in Great Britain because the performance form is rarely considered serious adult entertainment.

It's safe to say that 70 Hill Lane has done its part to shatter Punch-and-Judy stereotypes in its homeland and abroad. At the same time, Improbable Theater does evoke a childlike sense of wonderment in its audience based on the amazing objects created onstage. "We have discovered that people are happy to watch us make things," McDermott says. "We try to create impossible tasks, because the audience has invested their imagination in it. There's a definite agreement that we will all suspend reality.... There's an alchemy to be found in worthless or everyday objects. You can actually make these things look like special effects worthy of Steven Spielberg." (Caroline Palmer)


70 Hill Lane runs 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (with a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee) at the Southern Theater, (612) 375-7622

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