Mark Z. Danielewski’s Halloween party

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Mark Z. Danielewski, author of ‘House of Leaves,’ stood on stage in tails and a white hat Sunday night, ready to conduct the five readers arranged in front of him. They’d had just two weeks to prepare the production of his 2005 novella ‘The Fifty Year Sword’ for a sold-out performance Halloween night at the REDCAT Theatre in Disney Hall.

Inside a jittering metafictional frame, ‘The Fifty Year Sword’ is a spooky story with orphans, a mystical journey, fate, a malevolent storyteller and, perhaps, mercy. On the page, its five voices are represented by different-colored quotation marks; Danielewski is known for using page layout to both build and deconstruct his narratives.

A stage show, then, was an entirely new beast. The show included five readers, Danielewski conducting them, a soundtrack designed by John Zalewski and a shadowplay designed and choreographed by Christina Marie.

It’s the first time CalArts, which curates the downtown REDCAT theater and gallery, has had this level of production from one of its creative writing visiting artists. ‘Most authors just stand up and read, do a presentation that’s straightforward,’ said CalArts’ Tisa Bryant. But Danielewski ‘had lots of things in his head,’ she said. ‘He really took it and ran.’


During the performance, the readers followed their scripts carefully, occasionally raising their eyes to follow Danielewski’s gestures. The story jumped quickly from one reader to another, often in segments as short as two to six words. As it began, it was a bit hard to follow, like watching television with someone with an itchy remote finger. But when the story gained momentum, the various voices braided together with a burbling momentum.

‘I like an experience that’s available on multiple levels,’ said author Janet Fitch. Wearing a red wig and a black cape, Fitch was one of the many in the audience who had gotten into costume for the holiday. ‘I loved the shadow puppetry.’

‘The words and the music and the shadows -- my heart was racing with all the peaks and the valleys in the story,’ said Jesus Aldana-Alba. He and his wife, Jeanette, wore elaborate lion face paint; they had come because Aldana-Alba is a fan of Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves.’ ‘Seven days I read, and when I finished I sighed for three,’ he said. ‘Remembering that gets me giddy.’

Danielewski’s book, which had been for sale in the lobby, sold out before the show began.

People filing in for a second performance added after the first sold-out show saw nothing but an empty table, a kind of bookseller’s shadow play.

-- Carolyn Kellogg