Sam Tower + Ensemble’s Strange Tenants, written by Jeremy Gable and billed as a “dance theatre psycho thriller” claims to be influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock. And sure, it fits right into its 1950s corset, in which a quartet of young women wear pretty dresses (costumes by Tower); have perfect, shiny hair and rings on their fingers; and follow a fine MacGuffin in the form of a missing high-school girlfriend.
But even more prominent than Hitchcock’s influence is that of David Lynch.
Walking after midnight
Nia Benjamin’s Enid opens the show by stepping inside set designer Kevin Meehan’s rope-framed outline of a house singing Connie Francis’s “Fallin’” into a microphone, a beatific smile on her face. When she receives a note to return to the home of her childhood friend Natalie, she arrives to find three others already there: Bi Jean Ngo’s Honey, Tess Kunik’s Faye, and Merri Rashoyan’s Shannon-Lee.
Tower’s direction is fabulous to watch, wrenching the women’s too-wide smiles and soothing voices into paroxysms as they collapse to the floor, perform robotic movements in unison, or cheerily work synchronized leg lifts to Jack LaLanne’s voiced instructions. Though their mouths say one thing, their bodies say another; after all, all that atomic-age feminine anxiety has to boil over at some point.
But it's more than that. Each holds a dark secret, much as in the bucolic opening scene of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in which visions of a neighborhood lined with white picket fences and climbing roses give way to insects scrabbling through the dirt of a well-tended lawn. There’s even more Lynch in Alec MacLaughlin’s audio design, an often-deafening grinding noise that sounds like a combination of howling wind and heavy machinery and owes a big debt to Alan Splet’s work on Eraserhead.
Certain moments in Strange Tenants resonate and transcend Gable’s material, which is at its core a fairly traditional mystery. The women fall asleep standing, waving their bodies slowly back and forth like reeds in a breeze. In another scene, Faye stands outside the house, framed by a window, singing Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and occasionally seizing up in a horrific stutter as though an alien is trying to escape her belly.
It’s hypnotic and troubling and funny, at least until its last 15 minutes or so, when all the secrets are revealed and Expressionism gives way to melodrama. Still, between this top-notch cast and their risk-taking director, there’s plenty to admire about the direction in which this woman-centered arm of Philly’s devised-theater scene is headed.