Review: Beware of Scary Fairies in Impostor Theatre’s Beyond the Garden Gate

Impostor Theatre Co.’s newest production is a sight to make your skin crawl, but you won’t be able to look away from the spectacle. Beyond the Garden Gate (written by Mallory Swisher and directed by Stefan Roseen) will appeal to anyone who built fairy houses as a child or loved the classics of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm—anyone who relished the idea of other worlds where magic is a powerful, but often dark, presence. 

Spells, changelings, goblins, fairies, and mortals populate the stories Grandmother (Hilary Sanzel) tells her grandchildren, Kat (Maria Clara Ospina) and Maeve (Eliana Deckner-Glick), sisters whose dynamic is equal parts joking and embittered. As children, elder sister Maeve played pranks on Kat that often went too far, exposing her to dangers neither was prepared to face. Now a teen, Kat is worried for her ailing Grandmother, who talks about the fairy realm as if it were real and suffers painful bouts of dementia-like confusion. Maeve has dropped out of college and is afraid to face her parents’—and Kat’s—judgment, so she’s staying at her grandma’s house, a cottage core dream deep in a mysterious forest (set design by Ethan Gasbarro). The play’s adventure kicks off when Maeve asks Kat to come with her into the fairy realm to find a cure for their grandma’s illness. But caught in the land where the fae rule and chaos is the norm, the sisters are in for more than they bargained for.

Photo by Kyle Smart / Impostors Theatre Company.

The script sticks to well-known rules of the fairy world: cast protections around yourself and your home whenever possible, be wary of tricks and traps, and don’t make promises to, or bargains with the fae. Though the fae cannot lie, they are expert manipulators, and the production keeps the Morrigan (Jaclyn Jensen) watching from the sidelines, gathering intel for its fairy Queen. The Morrigan is armed with a violin, playing along with the production’s unsettling compositions from Dominick Vincent Alesia. The rest of the ensemble moves together through rapturous, often animalistic, choreography by Anna Roemer, as if they are playing out a bacchanalian fairy revel. 

Production highlights include the clever use of shadow play and silk screen techniques, showing puppet versions of Kat biking through the woods, the sisters fighting monsters, and the birds whispering the forest’s secrets (puppet design by Elyse Estes). The production’s standout performance comes from The Watcher (Jasmine Robertson), a guardian of the Between Place who is equally hilarious and terrifying, exchanging her services for truths, which she calls “delicious pain, mortal shame.” The Watcher uses her deft physicality and spooky eyes to command a band of fae disguised as stalagmites, and they move and howl with her every impulse. Robertson’s performance is so good that she steals thunder from the fairy Queen at the heart of the play’s conflict.

Photo by Kyle Smart / Impostors Theatre Company.

One drawback of the black box Crosby Theater within the Den Theatre is that the well-trained performers project a bit louder than necessary in the small space. Often, the character’s cries, combined with the fairies’ ecstasy and the production’s audio effects, are too loud for our comfort. There is also a lot of crying. It becomes physically painful to hear young Kat being traumatized by the fairy world in real time. 

Ultimately, this production gives form to the disturbing terrors of the magical world, but audiences can still go home and take comfort in Grandmother’s favorite mortal pleasures: “tea, blankets, and stories.”

Beyond the Garden Gate is playing at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave., through April 27. General admission tickets are available here for $20.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Row Light

Row Light (she/they) is a Chicago-based culture writer and editor. You can find their work at row-light.com.