The Summoning, by Charlotte Ahlin, is an ambitious slapstick three-person play with comedic moments that never quite becomes more than the sum of its parts. From the moment I sat in my seat and saw a giant pentagram chalked on the stage floor, I really wanted to like this play. As a fan of science fiction and fantasy, a dash of magic can allow the audience to vicariously experience what might happen if something otherworldly shows up in your living room. But in this play about summoning a demon, the most unrealistic part is the mortals.
Senior college student Circe (Charlotte Ahlin) and her roommate Morgan (Danielle Cohn) want to summon a demon in their apartment. But they’re missing one final ingredient – a virgin. Fortunately, Morgan invited her friend Lily (Jacque Emord-Netzley) over, a woman whom they suspect to be chaste. With no direction in life after she graduates, Circe is angry and lost and is looking for answers. She’s convinced she can raise something unearthly that can solve her problems. Morgan is somewhat skeptical of the whole ordeal but plays along. She is devoted to her roommate and friend, but also questions Circe along the way. Lily is bubbly, energetic and has one foot out the door of college as she decides between various lucrative career choices. She’s a know it all, but is also frank in her assessments and feelings. She arrives at Circe and Morgan’s apartment and the mayhem begins.
The problem with Ahlin’s characters is that their motivations are haphazard and mysterious. This was a result of the play being driven not by organic plot development or organic character decisions, but instead by the need to include jokes, allusions and physical comedy at the expense of all else. Consequently, the play felt like a rough draft that contained a lot of great moments, but the best humor got muddled with the mediocre.
To be fair, some of the humor works. The playwright clearly has a breadth of literary and pop culture knowledge that would work well for stand-up comedy, or for regaling friends at a bar. The play is chock full of literary references (harsh words about H.P. Lovecraft), slapstick comedy (an homage to the Dick Van Dyke episode, The Impractical Joke), references to pop culture (Lily is in a glee club called Resting Pitch Face) and millennial-speak acronyms. But the show needs an editor to tone down the cacophony of allusions that obscures the play itself. The result is that the audience in continually yanked out of the theater experience to accommodate an unnecessary joke or scene.
In a similar vein, one’s suspension of disbelief is repeatedly strained by various character choices. Lily at one point is threatened with a knife but instead of running away at the first chance she gets, she engages in a relatively long conversation with her attacker. Earlier, Morgan and Circe attempt to hide an incriminating bloody ingredient necessary to complete their spell. But somehow they are mystified where to hide a tiny object that could be concealed in any drawer. Even Circe’s belief that she can actually conjure a demon is never quite explained other than a passing comment that she found some spells on the Internet. As a viewer, I don’t need to believe Circe can raise a demon. But I absolutely need to believe that she thinks she can. That belief was conspicuously absent.
The play did showcase three talented actresses and they clearly had fun making the play. Unfortunately, the spell they cast didn’t reach far enough.
The Summoning is presented by Fat Knight Theatre at the Hudson Guild Theatre.