Harrow Horror @ Rough House

4 stars of 4

Immersive theatre is all the rage this fall, and tis the season for haunted houses so the Object Theater folk at Rough House have taken over the baroque basement at the Chopin Theatre  and mixed the two concepts together in a delicious recipe and created a twisted, NOT for children puppet evening that is visually compelling and narratively frightening like your favorite horror film. The Walls of Harrow House is an exquisitely wrought experience that will fascinate and repulse.

The premise for the evening is that we are investors in the work of the acclaimed visionary architect Milton Harrow.  Decaying, wrinkled, moldy bunraku styled characters move amongst the 30 odd patrons assembled on upholstery in the jewel and gold toned lounge, and then two life sized main characters usher us behind the black curtains and into the world of Harrow House.  The space is divided into "rooms" Deco-esque light fixtures dimly illuminate hallways and rooms.  There is an ancient typewriter and architectural models with little flashlights: if you turn on the penlights and look at the tiny modern buildings, you will cast disturbing shadows on the wall.  There are casette tapes you are encouraged to play where a creepy voice-over monotonously details Harrow's other work.  Its a Frank Lloyd Wright house tour gone seriously off the rails:there is a flower box with terrifying petrified hand-like objects reaching out to you.  Something is seriously wrong in this house, and that sense of ill ease heightens into fear when a creature made out of rope like appendages drags itself through the room on a cane, and a head with legs steals its face.  There is an earnest young man who crashes the tour and wants to work at Harrow House: disciples will later urge him to make the ultimate sacrifice;they will remove a finger which will travel around the house on its own.  There are strange lenses attached to the walls where skeletal faces appear and headphones play an eerie score of scrapes and whispers. Corey Smith's sound design infuses the visitors with a sense of total doom. 

It becomes clear as you choose which rooms to visit, which characters to follow, that Harrow may have been a genius, but his house subsumed his assistants physically, and their restless body parts are now part of the architecture, like zombies trapped forever in a single home.  At one point a tongue, a hand and a foot beat out a rhythmic score that is jaunty and disgusting at the same time.

We are up close and personal with the puppets and constructions designed by Grace Needleman and as always with Rough House, the artistry is at once deliciously imperfect and creatively delightful.  In this case it is also profoundly disturbing.  There is no blood but mold and darkness threatens at every turn.  None of these characters will get out of here unchanged-- no spoilers here, but some come to a dramatic and probably painful transformation.   Like watching a train wreck, you cannot turn away. Don't bring the kids unless they are dedicated to the macabre. 

The Walls of Harrow House performs with multiple "seatings" on Thursdays,Fridays and Saturdays until November 3rd with extra shows on Halloween at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division in Chicago.  For tickets and information go to http://www.roughhousetheater.com