The creep factor goes well beyond things that go bump in the night in Wandering Aesthetics’ suspenseful Boogers, Witches and Haints: Spooky Stories from Appalachia.
Kyle Jozsa is onstage for this solo storytelling performance, held in the spacious conference room of an elegant 1913 building on the near east side of Akron. The large old red brick building at 15 Broad St. houses the SageRock digital marketing firm and other businesses upstairs as well as studios and rehearsal spaces for various artists in the basement.
The long-haired, lanky Jozsa, co-founder of the theater with husband Benjamin Rexroad, tells three spine-tingling tales from among the many the pair gathered in 2013 during their 2,185.9-mile through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Two things were born during that seminal 5˝-month journey: the new theater company, devoted to storytelling and exploring what it means to be an American; and a new performance piece, gathered from stories they heard from some unusual characters during their adventure.
“Along the way we started hearing ghost stories and said, ‘We could do something with this,’ ” Rexroad said of the genesis of the hour-long solo performance piece.
Rexroad and Jozsa co-wrote the piece that the former directs. They culled about a dozen scary stories, which they plan to rotate each year to make Boogers, Witches and Haints a different performance piece annually.
Jozsa, 27, a Stow native who’s a preschool teacher who also teaches theater through multiple organizations, is education director for Wandering Aesthetics.
Rexroad, 28, who grew up in the Portage Lakes area of Coventry, handles administrative duties for the theater, which is a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit arts service organization based in New York. He also works for ArtsNow and the Akronist. The couple were married in 2012.
Rexroad and Jozsa said hiking the full Appalachian Trail was something each had always wanted to do. They planned and saved for about a year to make the journey happen, walking from Georgia to Pennsylvania and then hitchhiking to Maine to hike back down to the spot on the trail where they had stopped in Pennsylvania. The pair camped a lot but also stayed in hostels that ranged from decent to filthy.
The hostels had something else in common: Many of their operators were nuts. Spooky stories flowed from them, creating plenty of fodder for Wandering Aesthetics’ theatrical piece.
For Boogers, Witches and Haints, the setting is a cabin porch in the woods dubbed the Cuckoo’s Nest, a composite of the numerous hostels where Jozsa and Rexroad stayed along the Appalachian Trail. The small stage space is adorned with just a rocking chair, coat rack, open wood crate and a small table with a tin cup and coffee pot.
During a short preshow, Josza plays harmonica and interacts with the audience, which is encouraged to be as rowdy as it wants to be throughout the whole show.
“This isn’t your stuffy theater that plays by the normal rules,” Rexroad said.
Boogers, Witches and Haints, which made its world premiere in Kent over the summer, is making its Akron premiere just in time for Halloween. The title word “boogers” refer to the boogeyman and “haints” to haunts. Frightening tales range from one about a fiendish creature with bright yellow eyes and a long tail repeatedly scratching its way into Old Man Hughes’ home to a story about a young man dancing to his death with the ghost of an Indian princess on Blood Mountain.
Throughout it all, Jozsa assumes the voices of dozens of characters, including the high-pitched demands of the creature seeking its “Tailey-Po” after its tail has been cut off. He makes grotesque faces, assumes eerie voices and creepy vocal effects, and jumps over the wood crate, getting up close and scarily personal with audience members.
As an alternative, younger audiences are invited to the interactive, family-friendly show Scared Silly at 2 p.m. Nov. 8. Cost is $10, with one free admission to Scared Silly being offered with the purchase of each Boogers ticket so parents may come back with their children.
In Boogers, repetitive language creates tension in the storytelling and some surprising, well-timed movement by Jozsa has viewers jumping out of their seats. Interspersed throughout one of the scary stories is a funny bit where Jozsa repeatedly breaks the fourth wall as a hostel storyteller having a battle with a pesky bee.
Song is an important part of Jozsa’s storytelling too, including the tune Big Rock Candy Mountain. And he shares interesting details about Appalachian Trail hiking, including the hiker box in each hostel in which hikers leave behind things they no longer want. The boxes, operated on the honor system of taking something in exchange for leaving something, had items ranging from ramen noodles to Band-Aids.
In the evening’s final Appalachian legend, blacksmith John outsmarts the devil, but at a great price. Jozsa concludes by saying the woods are full of such Appalachian legends, which Wandering Aesthetics now gives as a gift to Akron audiences.
The storyteller divulged that he did wet his pants the first time he heard one of these macabre tales. I won’t say which one, but Jozsa leaves the audience with these haunting words:
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep. … Sweet dreams.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj or follow her on Twitter @KerryClawsonABJ.