Look Alive

It’s nearly Halloween and that means it’s time for ghost stories
Billy Muñoz and Rita Crosby bring old San Antonio bones to life in Sterling Houston’s The Living Graves.
The Living Graves
8pm Fri-Sun
Through Oct 29
$20 show; $36.95 show & dinner
The Church Bistro & Theatre
1150 S. Alamo
It’s nearly Halloween and that means it’s time for ghost stories. While the occasional production of Blithe Spirit (or Cats, for that matter) is sometimes scary enough, I believe the best haunts are the local variety. So it’s off to the Powder House Hill Cemeteries to find the ghosts of old San Antone with Sterling Houston’s The Living Graves as our guide. Actually, real cemeteries are too creepy, so it’s off to The Church Bistro and Theatre, which is producing Sterling Houston’s play in conjunction with Jump-Start Performance Co.

The Church lends gravity, elegance, and mystery to this piece and Steve Bailey’s direction makes innovative use of multimedia projections and some clever lighting and sound to transport us into a cemetery where the dead tell tales. The opening of the play is a visual treat, and surprisingly tense as we wait for the dead people to start spinning their yarns.

The ghosts of this story are mostly real characters from Texas history, and we all know what that means. (If you’re new to these parts, it starts with a big ‘A’ and rhymes with ‘Malamo.’) Fortunately, this is not another play about the big marble-statued heroes with streets named after them, though (as usual) we can’t avoid hearing something about Travis and Bowie. The Chapel of the Mission San Antonio de Valero and the Long Barracks do play significant roles in this play (something less than central and more than tangential), so if you don’t want to hear about it, you have been warned.

The real heroes this play puts forward, though, are such folks as Samuel Maverick, Clara Driscoll, Adina DeZavala, Jack Harris, and Charlie Bellinger — and, of course, countless ordinary characters who lived and died without getting their names on buildings but made the wheel go round.

Historical subjects are tricky because of two obvious traps: You can get the history wrong, or you can get lost in the research and forget to be entertaining. Living Graves avoids either extreme, but it does veer into classroom mode every so often, which is inevitable in a play that is actually a constant stream of information — but is nonetheless remarkable because Houston is generally adept at imparting information in an engaging fashion. On the other hand, a little bit of research into some of these characters calls into question some of the facts that are presented in the play. But would I have even bothered to do that sleuthing if it hadn’t been for this play? Probably not, so … point made: This is a valuable play.

For the most part, The Living Graves is edutainment and not agitprop, and the acting is superb. SkudR Jones brings depth to each of his multiple roles, while Kitty Williams keeps the action very lively, especially with her rendition of “Frankie and Johnny.” Pamela Dean Kenny and Rita Crosby’s relationship provides the crux of conflict for much of the play, and Bill Martin and Billy Muñoz round out the cast with a genial warmth and comic relief, respectively. Houston makes the most of the ensemble by weaving the stories of these characters, and the actors hold the tapestry together strongly.

If there is a flaw in the proceedings, it would be in some of the rough transitions between episodes, which slow the momentum of the play, not to a grinding halt, but to a patchy inconsistency that feels almost as if some other stories were cut out without a subsequent reworking of the splice marks. These speed bumps and the lapses into dramatically weak pedagogy notwithstanding, The Living Graves is entertaining and cleverly educational — and if you’re going to see dead people this October, these would be good dead people to spend some time with.


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