Lawrence Toppman

Those stains on the gowns at Frock Shop? A virgin’s blood!

A young woman who has longed for a companion (Racquel Nadhiri, bottom), gets more than she bargained for when a strange woman (Sarah Woldum) shows up in PaperHouse Theatre’s “She Who Watches.”
A young woman who has longed for a companion (Racquel Nadhiri, bottom), gets more than she bargained for when a strange woman (Sarah Woldum) shows up in PaperHouse Theatre’s “She Who Watches.” Courtesy of PaperHouse Theatre

PaperHouse Theatre calls “She Who Watches” a Halloween experience. It’s partly immersive and partly distancing, partly chilling and partly warming – especially if you pick mulled cider served beforehand, instead of wine – partly spooky and partly silly.

The company changed the name from “Carmilla,” the J. S. LeFanu novella on which it’s based. Le Fanu sought only to disturb us with the first great vampire story, published as a serial in 1871-72. (That’s a quarter-century before Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”)

LeFanu, an Irish journalist and editor who died the year after “Carmilla” came out, wrote horror stories with sexual overtones – in this case, a lesbian attraction between creature and victim that becomes consummated in an unspecified way.

Co-directors Nicia Carla and Chester Shepherd lighten the tone. Carmilla gets laughs by saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow...but not early.” An invented crone called Hunch-Hag ambles among the audience, literally sniffing out people who need her wares. The result is a story told as if by an elderly uncle, who likes to see us jump but reassures us we needn’t fear.

The basic plot remains: Laura (Racquel Nadhiri) wishes for a companion and gets one when a carriage overturns in her front yard. Laura’s mother (Andrea King) takes in the fainting Carmilla (Sarah Woldum), whose own mother (Rebecca Costas) leaves the girl in her care and dashes off on some unannounced mission.

Carmilla and Laura, who first saw each other in a vision at the age of 6, become closer...and closer....The ending is more upbeat, if also perhaps more troubling, than LeFanu’s.

The audience spends most of its time in the main room at Frock Shop, watching actors or shadow plays behind a white curtain. (The turn-of-the-century building seems just right as a setting.)

The group splits up once, dividing between that room and Laura’s bedroom upstairs; then people change places to see what they missed. Refreshments can be had at two brief intervals; a promised bathroom break never came, though the show runs just 75 minutes.

Costas provides humor as Hunch-Hag and a dotty doctor, mystery as Carmilla’s mother, anxiety as Laura’s governess and aunt. Everyone else takes things seriously: Nadhiri has a genial sweetness as the narrator, Woldum a seductive quality that’s both alluring and corrupt.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘She Who Watches’

When: Through Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday.

Where: Frock Shop, 901 Central Ave.

Tickets: $30.

Running Time: 75 minutes without intermission.

Details: paperhousetheatre.com.

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