Based on its title and description, you could mistake Haunting Rights for a conventional one-act play about dead souls vying for the right to be a theatre’s resident ghost. While that certainly is the plot, what you might not realize until the curtain rises is that you are watching an immersive, sight-specific production. We’re not talking about something on the level of the Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival; rather, the play’s conceit is that it is set inside the very theatre where you are watching the action unfold, taking place after a play which is in reality also being performed at the Broadwater Theatre in Hollywood.
What is going on here? Well, Haunting Rights is part of a series written by Michael Perlmutter, called Theatre Ghosts, which are meant to be staged after-hours at venues hosting some other production. To that end, the run of Haunting Rights at this year’s Hollywood Fringe Fest has been paired with another Theatre Ghosts play, Bloodsuckers: A Survival Guide. Not only is the bare-bones setting of Haunting Rights consistent with its companion piece, which presents itself as a TED talk-type lecture; the dialogue even contains an occasional reference to the other production, and it is not complimentary. The running gag is that one of the ghosts hates modern theatre; his ire is directed not only at contemporary playwrights (“Fucking David Mamet!”) but also at Bloodsuckers (“I wouldn’t call that theatre”).
It’s a great set up for a great play which has a substantial story tell to tell, the meta aspect serving as icing on the cake. Derek (Michael Perlmutter on the night we attended, though the cast list identifies Gareth Williams in the role) haunts a theatre where he recently died, miming actions which he can no longer really perform, such as smoking a cigarette. Unexpectedly intruding upon his solitude is Johnny (Jeffrey Johnson), a ghost who has been keeping himself himself hidden while waiting for Derek to move on.
Johnny, who prefers to haunt alone, demands that Derek vacate the premises. Derek is no no hurry to go anywhere; he is not even sure there is anywhere to go. Ghosts seem bound to the location of their death, so leaving the theatre presumably means abandoning the earthly plane of existence for whatever awaits beyond. Faced with this uncertainty, both men would prefer to remain in the theatre, each for his own reason: Derek is hoping for his daughter to revisit the scene of his death. Johnny loves watching plays (at least those written before 1950); moreover, having fallen off scaffolding during the construction, he has been haunting the place since before it was completed, giving him a prior claim to being the venue’s resident ghost.
Unable to settle their differences, the two ghosts are soon joined by Mary (Carolina Rodriguez) and Fran (Joesy De Palo), who decide to act as referees, setting up a sort of talent contest in which the audience is invited to vote for the winner with a round of applause. This generates some good laughs: the supremely confidant Johnny would seem to be a shoe-in for the winner, but his talent consists of lame bird calls, while the morose Derek can barely put an act together.
As Fran and Mary continue coaching their respective contestants and consider switching loyalty, personal details and conflicts emerge that edge the story in the direction of serious drama. The contest between Derek and Johnny fades somewhat into the background while the characters work through unresolved feelings about the lives they left behind and what place they should aspire to hold in the afterlife. Also, we learn interesting details about the two women, who died in car accident that sent them crashing into the theatre lobby: they remain travelers in the afterlife, unbound to a specific location, through they do seem to be joined at the hip – or “tethered,” as Derek puts it.
Supernatural elements aside, Haunting Rights seems to be about being stuck – either stuck in place or stuck with a person – and learning to make the best of the situation. However one interprets the play, its pleasures reside largely in its cast of characters, brought to life (or in this case, death) by an engaging ensemble of actors. Johnson is such a commanding stage presence as Johnny that he immediately puts Perlmutter in the underdog role – the sad, quiet one who earns sympathy as he desperately strives to mount some kind of counter-offensive. Rodriguez and De Palo handle an unusual challenge with their characters, who are virtually identical (for reasons explained in the play). Without an odd-couple dynamic to generate dramatic sparks, they manage to define their characters by their similarity rather than their difference, while adding comic relief and an air of optimism that lifts and balances the play’s more serious concerns.
Though far from frightening, Haunting Rights is a haunting depiction of souls searching for meaning – and a place to call home – in the afterlife.
1 – Avoid
2 – Not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Posing as a comedy-drama about dead souls vying for the right to be the resident ghost at the theatre where they died, Haunting Rights is also a clever piece of sight-specific interactive theatre, with a touch of meta adding icing on the cake. Fortunately, the clever conceit is supported by a strong story with interesting characters, and the production at Hollywood Fringe Festival sports a winning cast. Highly Recommended.
Cast & Crew:
- Written by Michael Perlmutter
- Directed by Ann Noble
- Gareth Williams as Derek (Michael Perlmutter played the role on the night we attended)
- Jeffrey Johnson as Johnny
- Carolina Rodriguez as Mary
- Joesy De Palo as Fran
Haunting Rights is part of a series of one-act plays, called Theatre Ghosts, intended to be performed after hours in theatres set up for other productions. At the Hollywood Fringe Fest, it is running with Bloodsuckers (A Survival Guide), another of the Theatre Ghost plays. Haunting Rights gives its final performances at the Broadwater Theatre on Wednesday June 21 at 9:30 PM and Thursday June 22 2023, 6:30 PM. The venue is located at 6322 Santa Monica Blvd. in More information here.