There’s nothing like a serial to keep people coming back. The idea has worked in literature, on movie screens, and on TV. It hasn’t been seen much onstage, but last February, Greater Boston got its own theatrical serial, “Blood Rose Rising,” the story of a local history professor, his lawyer girlfriend, and his other girlfriend, who just happens to be a ghost from the Victorian era.
The brainchild of former Actors’ Shakespeare Project artistic director Ben Evett, with a script co-written by local theater veteran Steve Barkhimer, “Blood Rose Rising” debuted at the Davis Square Theatre in Somerville with “Immaterial Girl.” A second episode, “Heir of Suspicion,” was promised “in a month or so,” but the serial went on hiatus in early March and didn’t reappear till September, when “Heir of Suspicion” began performances at Naga in Cambridge’s Central Square.
Episode three, “Futile Attraction,” was to have had its first preview there Oct. 12. But on Oct. 11, Evett announced that “Blood Rose Rising” would, once again, be closing. “I was crushed and disappointed about not being able to show episode three,” he said recently over the phone. “I had to make a tough call. It had become clear that we just weren’t meeting our numbers.”
It’s too bad, because the project had a lot of promise. Having reviewed the first episode, I had been planning to follow up with a single review encompassing both new segments — and I was primed, after seeing part two, to write a mostly favorable piece.
“What Ben had in mind,” Barkhimer told me, “was a story about a guy who winds up morally compromised by having to murder people in order to keep this ghost whom he meets alive. I think initially Ben’s idea was to start it in a Halloween-type slot, kind of your late-night informal tongue-in-cheek kitsch horror genre. Something a little zany and a bit edgy.”
This is a good description of the two episodes that made it to the stage. Robert Blackwood is a part-time history professor at Stillborne College who has just inherited a Victorian mansion from his estranged father, the distinguished psychologist
Ulysses Blackwood. The house, Robert discovers, comes with a Victorian ghost, Rose, who requires blood in order to materialize. Rose and Robert are attracted to each other — which is awkward, because Robert already has a girlfriend, Olivia Barlow, a brilliant lawyer who’s planning to run for Congress. But Rose is irresistible, and soon Robert is burying two corpses in his backyard.
That’s just the beginning of his problems. His cellphone is stolen, and the threat of blackmail looms. Olivia’s political mentor, Parker Snode, and one of Robert’s old schoolmates, Wilson Darning, are both vying to replace him in Olivia’s affections. He keeps running into a mysterious European couple, Fanny and Ulrich Urbeutel, who seem to know more than they should. And one of his students, Sharon, is starting to come on to him.
Surely the gap between episodes and the relocation to Central Square didn’t help the show retain the audience it had drawn in Davis Square.
Perhaps all this was too much to cram into two episodes. (“Immaterial Girl” ran about 90 minutes, “Heir of Suspicion” about 70.) The characters were sketchy, but they were developing. “Blood Rose Rising” had its own live band, Alchemilla, that performed before and after the show and during the brief intermission, and if the song lyrics — which included some poetic contributions from Barkhimer, like “If we touch the rose, we have to bleed” — weren’t always intelligible, that could have been fixed. At Naga, thoughtful use was made of video: When a cellphone rang, the caller ID readout appeared on the screen behind the stage. A flashback to Victorian times informed us that Rose had been the Blackwood maid. (Was she perhaps canoodling with Robert’s great-great-grandfather?) The climax of “Heir of Suspicion,” where Rose seems to be trying to take possession of Sharon, was chilling.
All the same, at both venues, “the audiences were tiny,” Evett said: starting out all right with crowds of “40 to 50 people,” but soon tumbling “into the 10s and 20s.”
The original production concept, he added, “was very similar to what we actually achieved at Naga, which was an open space with a bar, with video capability, and of course the live band. The one exception was that we got no share of the concessions, which meant that our margins were based totally on ticket sales. The place seats 120 people, and night after night after the first weekend, we were running at between 15 and 20 percent of our capacity. If we’d got 30, 40 people in there a night, we’d still be running. We wouldn’t be making money, but we would be running.”
He conceded that the serial idea, which he said “was built on this television-series model of people becoming invested in the characters,” might have been problematic. “We made it more challenging,” he said, “because you had to come out, and you had to come out multiple times. And though I think people really enjoyed the shows when they were there, we weren’t able to generate the kind of enthusiasm that could propel people to go to their friends and say, ‘Oh, this is amazing. You gotta come with me next time.’ ”
And surely the gap between episodes and the relocation to Central Square didn’t help “Blood Rose Rising” retain, let alone build on, the audience it had drawn six months earlier in Davis Square.
Barkhimer pointed to another obstacle for new work with this production’s particular ambitions: finding “a space that is able to accommodate a show that threatens to be there for a period of months. It’s very difficult.”
Is it possible that “Blood Rose” will rise again? Evett floated a couple of ideas. “One thought we have,” he said, “is to do single performances, maybe do one performance of each and then call it a day. We’re also starting to explore the possibility of changing media and doing it as a Web series and giving up on the idea of live theatrical serials.”
Barkhimer said he still feels good about what he wrote, and he has reason to. “I think if it were to sustain another life, there wouldn’t be many tweaks we’d have to do to the initial episodes,” he said. “We’d just have to take into account the actual environment we’re dealing with as we go forward.” Perhaps that could be at an established venue that’s cultivated an audience for boundary-pushing theater — someplace like Oberon, for example, or the Institute of Contemporary Art. If “Blood Rose Rising” could be revived, Barkhimer said, “I think it would absolutely fly at some point.”