Starting this year, I'm adopting my Left Coast colleague Bob Machray's tradition of attending a Halloween-themed performance every Samhain season. I'm happy to report that my new custom has begun robustly, with a delightfully diverting evening spent in the company of Mr. R M Lloyd Parry. A marvelous reader and actor, this gentleman simply sits in a chair, surrounded by the leathery accoutrements of a bookish professor's study, and tells us two spooky supernatural tales by M R James, the great writer of English ghost stories.
Professor James, who lived from 1862 to 1936, was a master of English prose. His sentences weave patterns both elegant and forceful, often taking unexpected turns into obscure, frightening, or funny corners of the supernatural and the psychological. Listening to Mr. Parry read "The Ash Tree" and "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" brought me back to my first, youthful plunge into Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles." It also brought to mind the dark imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, although Poe's American characters are far more rough-and-ready than James's tweedy dons and landed gentry.
Parry starts with an avuncular mien but can also grow spectral before our very eyes, especially with the stage lit only by a few candles. (A tiny bit of stage lighting would have illuminated his face a little more without spoiling the effect.) He makes it easy to suspend your disbelief and tap into your childish sense of wonder. The technique and staging – a solo performer who both narrates and brings multiple characters to life in order to tell a taut but wild story – also recalls Patrick Stewart's wonderful solo performances of A Christmas Carol.
When Patrick Stewart brings a show to America, of course, it's bound for a Broadway stage. Oh, Whistle is being performed in the 30-seat black-box space at the 78th Street Theatre Lab. And the theater was not full. There are four more performances of this award-winning show (it won The Dracula Society's Hamilton Deane Award for best dramatic presentation in the Gothic genre, no less). Nov. 5th through the 8th are your last chances.
Go, fill up this tiny place, and make some noise while ye may. Soon enough the spookiness of the Halloween season will be gone, and in its place the sugary and far less evocative homeyness of Thanksgiving. Don't let Thanksgiving happen to you! Not, anyway, without first immersing yourself in the spooky mind of M R James, the master of the English ghost story.
Oh, Whistle…: Two Ghost Stories by M R James is directed and performed by R M Lloyd Parry. The final four performances run from Nov. 5-8 at 7:30 PM. On Nov. 7 there is an additional 10 PM performance of two different stories. Purchase tickets online or call 212-362-0329. Visit the Nunkie Theatre Company's website for more information on Mr. Parry's performances.