The Twin Cities Horror Festival is a pretty distinctive presence on the local theater festival landscape, and not just because it’s a two-week celebration of a decidedly niche genre. Even though TCHF pulls together a broad array of performers and perspectives, it also has a more distinctive, unified voice than any of its contemporaries. Each year’s assemblage of shows takes on an identifiable character that rewards binge watchers with an organic experience where each production build on and feeds off the others. This was especially evident in this year’s opening night slate, featuring four shows strung together by loose themes of personal identity and the duality of existence.

 

Dancing down divergent roads

Opening the festival with After the Party makes for a solid thesis statement. Dance is likely not the first thing that comes to mind when the average theatergoer thinks of horror, but Erin Sheppard Presents has become a TCHF staple by producing lively, modestly scaled performances that aren’t afraid to take some narrative and stylistic chances.

After the Party is a simple story of mismatched lovers Erin Sheppard and Joe Bozic hooking up at a party and following each other down divergent paths, some leading beyond the mortal plane. Set to an alt-pop song score by artists like Stars, Bon Iver and Basement Jaxx, the dance routines are at various turns effervescent, mournful, and overtly sexual, tied together by Bozic’s melancholy script. In the show’s most distinctive stroke, the lead couple is played by multiple pairs of dancers in identical costumes, often all on stage at the same time. It’s an unnerving effect that allows the show to expand its characterizations and flirt with alternate timelines as the relationship splinters in different directions. Through it all, the constant is Sheppard herself, anchoring the proceedings with a versatile performance that fluctuates from vivacious enigma to haunted shell, with various stops in between.

 

Discord and duplicity

Animus likewise leans heavily on distorted and reflected images, developing its ideas in ways both recognizable and startling. Drawing directly from ingmar Bergman’s Persona (no spoilers there, as the Bergman inspiration is cited on the front of the program), Animus follows a smug, online self-help guru Emily Michaels King as she recuperates from a mysterious mental break with the aid of self-effacing, hyperverbal caretaker Debra Berger.

If the scenario is familiar to cinephiles, the presentation is another story. This is a production filtered through multiple layers of self-imposed obstruction, beginning with Tyler Mills’ intentionally aggressive sound design. The cacophony of the opening minutes sets a dissonant tone that carries through the whole production, resonating even in the frequent silent moments.

King and Berger spend much of the show at least partially obscured from each other and the audience, separated by dressing screens, smartphone screens, and a giant movie screen that looms over the stage. Throughout it all, Amber Johnson silently follows the two women with a video camera broadcasting live, black-and-white images of the action happening onstage, creating unsettlingly intimate tableaus that add brutal depth to every interaction. While the underlying commentary on the disconnection and fragmentation of the social media era is well-worn territory at this point, the technical execution and impressive lead performances make Animus one to remember.

 

Rough edges and righteousness

The kids of Theatre Unchecked’s Hand-Picked are also on a quest for identity, that being the natural state of teenagers. Unfortunately, they’re about to learn that your personal identity doesn’t always mean as much as the one other people hang on you. Riffing on the familiar summer camp slasher movies of the 1980s, Hand-Picked checks in on eight young women attending a camp for high-achieving girls. It doesn’t take long before a particularly brutal pecking order is established, and girls who fall outside a narrow definition of white femininity start disappearing from the campfire circle.

Unlike many of the grizzled veterans of TCHF, Theatre Unchecked is a cooperative focusing on work by emerging artists. As such, Hand-Picked has some rough edges, but also an energetic vitality that keeps it raucously engaging throughout. It’s by no means a subtle show, but it isn’t meant to be. If its racial and sexual metaphors are sometimes too on the nose, they just as often hit their mark with an appropriately blunt thud. An 11-woman cast paired with a 60-minute runtime means that some characters go underdeveloped and several key moments of action take place offstage, but as a trade-off we get a finale packed with gleefully gory comeuppances and a well-realized sense of righteous anger. While Hand-Picked isn’t a wholly successful production, its ambition, bravado, and sense of purpose make it well worth watching.

 

Time travel done right

Rogues Gallery Arts’ Intuition and the Mantis is the most traditional horror offering from TCHF’s opening night, and maybe also the most satisfying. Writer-director Duck Washington’s crafts a funny, creepy vignette reminiscent of a particularly dark lost Twilight Zone episode. Small-time politician Tim Uren pays a visit to his time-travel enthusiast sister Adelheid Berg’s underground laboratory, where he becomes an unwitting test subject for Berg and zealous assistant Philip D. Henry. As Berg and Henry fold time back on itself and toy with the historical possibilities of endless do-overs, long-buried grievances rise to the surface, various tortures are meted out, and a doorway to something dreadful threatens to spring open.

Despite its mind-bending themes, this is a technically straightforward production that hinges on the strength of its script and the performances of its central trio of actors. They’re easily up to the task, with local horror stalwart Uren coming off especially well as a blustering but harmless blowhard thrust into a heavier situation than he’s equipped to deal with. In a supremely spooky maneuver, Washington peppers half-a-dozen cloaked, masked actors throughout the audience, their frequent eruptions of otherworldly chattering creating a kind of inscrutable chorus that keeps the room constantly on edge. Intuition and the Mantis is just straight-up solid horror theater put together by a group of pros who know what they’re doing inside and out.