Centralia Extinguishes Its Run at Brooklyn Lyceum


Sarah Hartley tells ghost-town stories to an audience at Centralia.

While everyone I know went to watch The Hunger Games last weekend, I decided to skip the human sacrifice and head to Brooklyn Lyceum instead to see Centralia. An interactive theater production that was equal parts haunted house and happy hour, Centralia is set in the real-life, apocalyptic town of the same name in Pennsylvania where a coal fire has been burning below the surface of the ground since 1962 after a trash fire ignited in a mine.

Centralia is the first project written and developed entirely in house by Ugly Rhino Productions. The fledgling theater company began brainstorming a show about the town last fall after uncovering a news article from 1999 about its remaining few residents who’d refused to leave despite the town being seized by the state under eminent domain in the early ‘90s–the post office doesn’t even deliver there anymore.

“We thought that imagining who these last nine residents were would be a compelling story to tell the audience in the backdrop of the Lyceum, as well as in the story-telling format we had in mind,” said Bryce Norbitz who created and directed Centralia with Nicole Rosner, and Danny Sharron. The trio took subsequent trips to Centralia itself and interviewed former residents to get a sense of what life is actually like living atop a pile of burning coals. The result was a show consisting of six separate stories each paired with a custom-created cocktail–a somewhat-signature of Ugly Rhino’s productions.  Centralia opened its four-night run on March 2 to such success that it added an encore show; it officially closed last Saturday, which is why I wasn’t entirely surprised to see the audience overflowing onto Fourth Avenue as I locked my bike in front of Brooklyn Lyceum on Friday night.

Entrance to Centralia happened in intervals, as small groups moved on from the first act–the only one on the ground floor–upstairs to the Lyceum’s warehouse where the bar and remaining five acts were happening. When my turn came, I squeezed into the first scene in the Lyceum’s glass-walled lounge. It was staged to look like a bar and intended to give background information to the audience by way of actress Sarah Hartley rehashing the town’s history. As the lights began to dim, I grew quiet with the rest of the crowd getting geared up for the ghost-town storytelling to begin.

“I think you’re just leaning on the lights,” Norbitz announced returning the dimmer to its original setting to the chagrin of the girl who had brushed up against the switchplate. Even accidental mood lighting had us all a little antsy, though the telling of Centralia’s story proved more unfathomable–carbon-monoxide sinkholes capable of killing a person in seconds, multi-million-dollar estimates for extinguishing the flames–than frightening, but that didn’t stop me from getting a good grip on my first cocktail before heading upstairs to see what else Centralia had in store.

The cavernous space overhead had been transformed to give off the illusion of a smoldering surface thanks to a few well placed fog machines working overtime. Video footage of Centralia, Penn., taken by Holus Bolus streamed against the back wall above the remaining five scenes, which were shrouded behind black enclosures, each with a mailbox by the entrance–a raised red flag on the mailbox meant it was OK to enter without interrupting an act already in progress. The crowd was corralled in the center sipping cocktails with names like Toxic Tonic and Stockpile Punch out of white plastic cups and circling each enclosure in a musical-chairs sort of way waiting to jump at an opening before it filled up or quickly heading to another entrance if they hadn’t acted in time.

The acts themselves ran the spectrum from sad to psychotic–the sibling rivalry of a remaining set of brothers, a married couple for whom staying in Centralia might soon become an irreconcilable difference, a pair of adult orphans unable to leave each other or the town itself–and were dramatic enough that you needed a drink after each, which explains why the line at the bar often felt infinite. A trio of bartenders were making upwards of 960 drinks a night.

Two hours after I’d arrived, having downed my last drink and needing to breathe fresh air, I left fake coal country and returned outside to Park Slope happy the closest I’d ever come to being a coal miner’s daughter was listening to Loretta Lynn.

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