Encore Michigan

Zettelmaier’s ‘Haunted’ rounds up Michigan ghost stories

Review October 04, 2019 David Kiley

YPSILANTI, Mich.–October is always a good month for ghost stories, especially in Michigan where one really feels the autumn. Sit around a fire at a campsite in the Upper Peninsula or even on a Lake Michigan beach where the night chill is too much for bathing suits. The trees are close enough to hear the whistling leaves, something is crunching leaves and twigs underfoot. A distant dark outline. Who…or what is that?

So, we are reminded by Michigan playwright Joseph Zettelmaier–that Michigan is a good state for ghost stories. In Haunted: The Great Lakes Ghost Project, Zettelmaier, who is known for digging and raking the historical research for his works, puts himself into this one as the “Author,” played by Dan Johnson, as a writer who is collecting ghost stories from different quarters of the mitten state.

He remarks that all but one of the stories he received are from women. He isn’t sure why. Maybe women are better at spotting ghosts?

One story comes from an actress who was playing Desdemona in Othello at Wayne State University’s notorious Bonstelle Theatre, whose namesake was waked in state in the 1930s on stage. Over the years, legions of actors have commented about the strange goings on at the temple-turned theatre, which is now slated to be taken down and its lot on Woodward Avenue in Detroit redeveloped. In her case, she was nearly killed, she thinks, by the ghost of the eccentric Ms. Bonstelle.

In another tale, we hear of the author traveling North to the town of Foster City, a one-time major logging and mining area that drew magnates who built mansions now long abandoned. Spirits are seen in windows and doors that should not be there. There is a drive through the city of Mandan, also in the Nortthern part of the state, as well as a meander through Hell, Michigan. And there is a visit to the home and museum of another author–of American Chillers and Michigan Chillers books.

Johnson’s “Author” tells his stories–Zettelmaier’s curated stories–with by Julia Garlotte, Alysia Kolascz and Allison Megroet, who each play several characters including the people who sent the playwright their yarns.

The Author is not just a scribe or collector. He himself was touched once by a ghostly encounter, we are told. Two decades ago, when the author was living in Ypsilanti in an old house chopped up for student apartments, he sensed something was off about the house despite his like of living there. It began with finding a small closet with a small, child-size door, and a deadbolt lock on the inside of the closet. Creaks, squeaks and moans not necessarily associated with a late 19th century house bedeviled him. He was already given to night terrors. And he has been “haunted” by the experience of communing with a spirit one night.

He doesn’t believe in ghosts. But the Author discovers something to consider on an old map of Ypsilanti that gives him a fuller picture of why the house may have spirit issues. I’ll save the spoilers. It’s a good story.

Directed very well by Anna Simmons, with scenery and props by Jennifer Maiseloff, the Roustabout Theatre Troupe does an excellent job of utilizing the very small space in downtown Ypsilanti, at the Ypsilanti Experimental Space, with a rustic platform complete with campfire, giving the performance space two levels to work on, as well as the lighting design by Dustin D. Miller and projections by Will Myers that move us around the state. Despite the somewhat make-shift performance space that, for example, has a fuse box in the middle of the wall where projections are used to take us Up North, this professional group makes the stories come alive like an undead farmer who sits next to you on a bench in the woods.

It’s cool to be sitting in the town where the play’s author and central character made his discovery that formed his fascination with spirits, apparitions and things that are haunted. The focus on Michigan places, too, wraps around us like the watery state itself.

Haunted runs through October 20.

Week of 10/14/2019

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