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‘Campo Maldito’ a thrilling, chilling comedy about gentrification

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Walker Hare, left, and Luis Vega appear in “Camp Maldito.” (Courtesy Will Given)

In “Campo Maldito,” when weird things start happening in the ramshackle office of a three-year-old internet startup company in the Tenderloin — computer crashes, power failures, exploding water pipes — geeky entrepreneur Ken senses the presence of a malevolent force, one that wants him gone.

He’s right about that.

In this contemporary ghost story, a People of Interest production that premiered in San Diego in 2014 and has played at the San Francisco and New York fringe festivals, local playwright Bennett Fisher has more on his mind than just chills and thrills, although there’s plenty of that.

He wants us to think about the inhabitants of the Tenderloin, and how they’re faring during The City’s runaway gentrification. The company — founded by the play’s director, Jesca Prudencio — is offering free tickets to neighborhood residents.

The enthralling two-hander begins with the arrival (at 5 a.m. on a Sunday) of a Santeria priest (who is, not incidentally, a recovering alcoholic).

He’s a seemingly stoical, bald-headed guy, in a Niners jersey and a fanny pack, whom Ken has hired to purify the office.

Immediately there’s trouble.

Ken, who’s been sleeping on the floor of the office, is taken by surprise. How did this stranger get in the building? he wonders — and attacks him with a handy computer keyboard.

From that point on, the relationship between the two goes through various stages as the priest attempts to rid the environment of the malevolent spirit — one that, as it transpires, he himself knows all too well.

As the priest, Luis Vega is terrific, at times cool and all business, at other times menacing, taut, wigged out. He easily and convincingly transitions from one emotional state to another.

And he’s well matched by tall and lanky Walker Hare as the befuddled computer geek, although in a secondary role (no spoilers here), Hare makes such low-key acting choices that the play’s intensity and energy flag, leaving Vega little to play against.

It’s only there, though, that director Prudencio’s sure hand falters (well, that and the fact that some of the action takes place on the floor, where only those in the first row, or really tall people, can see what’s going on). Otherwise, as enhanced by Sarah Winter’s lighting design and
Chad Goss’ ominous sound effects, the edgy atmosphere is sustained.

When you exit the Exit onto Eddy Street, the Tenderloin just might look slightly different to you.

Campo Maldito
Presented by People of Interest
Where: Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Aug. 13
Tickets: $15 to $25
Contact: www.theexit.org

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