Smoke whooshes in from stage right. Frank Zilinyi (think Orson Welles-ish) and Zero Boy each stand at a lectern with only faces lit in the dark theater. Behind the actors, a narrow screen shows art, photos, and newspapers illustrating the men’s stories. Splendid sound effects enhance. More or less alternating, the two regale us with the gruesome history of property on which we sit which has hosted an inordinate amount of violent death. The actual building was constructed in 1885.
What’s now the Lower East Side was farmland as we begin; the current Washington Square a pauper burial ground. Eventually excavated, the land yielded hundreds of skeletons. In the northwest corner of the park stands an elm that served as the hanging tree before public gallows were built. One could be sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread.
The city’s best executioner (for 40 years) lived in a shack erected where we now sit. Isadore enjoyed his career. People came to watch him execute their neighbors, even children. He grew rich but spent money on nothing and never moved. When the hangman was retired, he boarded his windows and padlocked the door. Neighbors heard animalistic howling. The night it stopped, a constable broke in to find him hanging – in a locked room with no visible furniture on which to stand. “Perhaps spirits of the dead came back to give him a taste of his own medicine…his money, who knows? Two weeks after burial, sounds from the shack began again.”
We hear about a reverend who set up a mission at the address. The building caught on fire. He had time to escape, but stayed. Charred remains showed a bullet to his head caused death. Fourteen bodies were found buried there, some without heads. Inhabitants died of Yellow Fever. There were gang murders. By the 1870s, a wood house at this location collapsed on countless immigrants. A new owner rebuilt, but was killed with a hammer. Occupants heard creaking floorboards, pictures flew through the air. A two year-old boy fell down the stairs. His mother committed suicide. Number 85 became a flophouse.
Stories go on through 1988, some accompanied by projections of actual newspaper front pages. Who knows how much is true? In accordance with evolution of the area, facts sound possible. As to angry spirits, each of us believes what we will.
The chronicle is interesting, though not as intended, spooky. Most images work, though this is a case of bigger would’ve been better. Frank Zilinyi exudes gravitas, while Zero Boy seems flip. Technical Director Wes Shippee does a fine job with sound and light.
Dan Bianchi’s Radiotheatre (Since 2004) is a marvelous idea. I last saw and thoroughly enjoyed King Kong with both film and costumed actors at microphones. This was considerably less successful.
Among Bianchi’s 13 books is Manhattan Macabre: 200 Years of Strange Tales From The Lights Out Club.
Photo courtesy of the production
Zero Boy and Frank Zilinyi
Frigid presents Radiotheatre
The Haunting of 85 East 4th Street
Written by Dan Bianchi
Technical Director Wes Shippee
The Kraine Theater
85 East 4th Street