TAO Returns to the Dark with Mystery

by Molly Gilmore

left to right: Christian Carvajal and Ethan Bujeaud

Theater Artists Olympia, settling into its first permanent home since 2017, is returning to its creepy, twisted roots with The Mystery Plays, opening Aug. 10 at OlyTheater in the Capital Mall. TAO describes the show, penned by Riverdale creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, as “inspired by the tradition of Medieval mystery plays but seen through the lens of The Twilight Zone.”

“It’s a little bit of Halloween in the summer,” said Pug Bujeaud, the play’s director and a TAO mainstay. “It’s fun and quirky and dark. It’s very much an old-school TAO show. The basis of the show is ‘What is a forgivable sin? … What lines do you draw? How do you decide what behaviors are acceptable and what behaviors — or people — you have to cut out of your life?”

left to right: Jesse Morrow and Xander Layden

As the title reveals, the 2004 play is a combination of two one-acts, which share one character plus a reference to another, and that’s part of what gives it the feel of a TV anthology. There’s even a host, the ominous Mr. Mystery (Dennis Rolly). “We are all of us on a journey,” Mr. Mystery tells the audience. “We are forever rushing up against an invisible world of secrets, an intangible world of mysteries.” The world of the show includes murders, described but not shown, and at least one apparition.

“There used to be an old television series called One Step Beyond,” Bujeaud said. “It predates The Twilight Zone. The play is more in that vein. It’s more about psychic phenomena and hauntings and that kind of thing. The Twilight Zone was more science fiction.”

The comparison to TV shows is a fitting one given Aguirre-Sacasa’s television-writing credentials. “He’s most famous for taking the Archie comic books and working on the series Riverdale, which is a scary, ghosty, grown-up version of the Archie world,” Bujeaud said. “He wrote this play before that.”

Jesse Morrow

The playwright’s love for Archie and company goes back to childhood, though, and one of his earliest plays was Archie’s Weird Fantasy, a satirical show in which Archie was gay. After Archie Comics sent a cease-and-desist letter, Aguirre-Sacasa renamed the play Weird Comic Book Fantasy and changed the characters’ names so the production could go forward. He later turned things around, writing dark Archie stories for the publisher beginning in 2004. 

These days, he’s the chief creative officer of Archie Comics. Also among his writing credits: Glee, Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (about Riverdale High’s teenage witch) and the Broadway musical American Psycho. “Aguirre-Sacasa has become an auteur of moody, sexy teen angst,” New York Times culture writer Alexis Soloski wrote in 2018. “He is a John Hughes for a darker, more cynical, way more libidinous age.”

left to right: Dennis Rolly, Xander Layden and Jesse Morrow

The playwright explored some of the same dark themes in Mystery Plays, which premiered in 2004 and grabbed TAO’s attention back when the company was still performing in The Midnight Sun, which closed in 2017. Bujeaud was excited about directing it now in part because of the way it breaks the fourth wall, something it shares with such recent TAO projects as Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol and The Half-Life of Marie Curie.

left to right: Xander Layden, Dennis Rolly and Jessee Morrow

It will be no surprise to longtime TAO fans that the director also liked the show’s creepy and sometimes supernatural themes. “I like that kind of thing,” she said. “Jacob Marley had a certain sense of the weird, but I’ve done a lot of things lately that have not been in that genre. I just wanted to fall into that genre again for a bit.”

The script isn’t the only aspect of the show that evokes old times. The cast includes TAO veterans Rolly, Christian Carvajal and Xander Layden — who, like their colleagues in the show, all play multiple roles. Also in the cast: Jesse Morrow, who recently starred in SPSCC’s Sunday in the Park With George, plus Max Reister, Ethan Bujeaud (the director’s son), Kris Sawyer, Timothy Rupert and Carson Hundall.

left to right: Dennis Rolly, Jesse Morrow and Ethan Bujeaud

The Mystery Plays

7:30 p.m. Aug. 10-12, 18-19, 21, 25 and 26 and 2 p.m. Aug. 13, 20 and 27

OlyTheater, Capital Mall, 625 Black Lake Blvd., Olympia



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