Specter of Housing Insecurity Exorcised in Theater Oobleck’s A Memory Palace of Fear

House 666. Photo by Kristin Basta. Rust Belt Chicago’s editor/writer Martha Bayne and artist Andrea Jablonski co-curate Theater Oobleck’s unique haunted house, tapping into fears about housing insecurity. A rainy, raw fall day was an apt backdrop to arrive at the doleful Silent Funny warehouse space in Humboldt Park, complete with free candy and a paid Scar Bar, a simultaneous commemoration of the witching season and the specter of gentrification. Guests are met by the bureaucratic bogeyman, the Loan Officer (all roles played by rotating casts), who languidly asks questions from amusing to absurd to intrusive, like “what’s your Tinder password?” and, when I refused to give my social security number, the probably true response “we already have it” (and, indeed my tax return was recently hacked). The shock-haired hostess/realtor Constance then leads the group into House 666, next door to the House of Usher (likely built by Edgar Allan Poe), sporting insanity-inducing Yellow Wallpaper (probably designed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman), a ramshackle construction where the sellers are quite motivated. She narrates/reads about the tragic history of the home, punctuated by visits from her equally odd and coiffed brother Walt. This house’s story mirrors its neighborhood, filled with families, then mold, fire and flood, then predatory lenders, then marginalization. “The great thing about being abandoned,” says Constance, “is that people forget about you.” The promenade production is a thought-provoking meditation on “should I stay or should I go,” yet the interactive installations on the other side of the warehouse are more successful. Gabriel X. Michael’s slide show, titled “Photograph as Epitaph: Lost Chicago Houses 2012-2017,” documents demolished residences, some architecturally significant, some unremarkable, all holding meaning for former occupants. Michael writes, “this installation serves as a memorial service to remember their existence one final time; when you can’t see something, it’s easy to forget it’s there or ever was. Maybe it’s also a reminder of our limited time too, and a resulting sense of gratitude to be here to witness this city, at this time, in this moment.” The next stop is the listening station, where folks can sit on “pillows decorated with children’s nightmares” made by Jablonski, listen to real recorded haunted house stories played on old-school black phones, or read Bayne’s chapbook of bedtime stories, all inspired by or culled from storytelling and fear drawing workshops in Chicago and Hot Springs, Arkansas. The final environment is a hallway of 3D papier-mâché sculptures of domestic tranquility and perversion, ending in a tiny living room, where you are instructed to sit, draw and post what home means to you. Real kids from the neighborhood run from station to station, spilling from their neighboring homes into this theatrical representation. These fabricated homes had become haunted by real-world visitations. A Memory Palace of Fear runs at Silent Funny, 4106 W. Chicago Ave. through October 31, Thursdays-Saturdays (plus Halloween on Tuesday) 6-10pm, and Sunday matinees 1-5pm; $15 suggested donation (“more if you’ve got it, free if you’re broke”). Tours start every 15 minutes, and run about 30 minutes (the first two tours of each date are for younger audiences). Advance tickets recommended, walkup tickets are limited and first come, first served. For ages 12 and up. The Loan Officer. Photo by Kristin Basta.
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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.