Hells Canyon a Horror Play With a Brain, Has World Premiere by Theater Mu at Jungle Theater in MPLS

Production Photo

Hells Canyon, the new play by Keiko Green uses the horror genre to explore race, generational trauma, and the complexity of gender and a woman’s body. The first two it deals with fairly head on, the last is more subtextual and requires the audience to think about the play, the characters, their race, and the ways in which woman have been sublimated and exploited historically. If that sounds a bit serious, reflect on the long tradition of works in genres such as Science Fiction, Horror, Westerns or any number of others, to tackle important issues through the use of entertainment and distance from their real world equivalents. Hells Canyon never loses sight that it is a Horror play, it’s thrilling, scary, and entertaining, all that is required from the genre. But, like the best examples of any genre it’s richer because it isn’t just about the genre trappings, getting the blood pumping and the goosebumps to break out, at its core are ideas which engage the mind as well as the emotions. This is an impressively mounted production and one that any horror fan should be sure to check out. My planned plus one for the show was my wife, when I was preparing before the show I realized it was in the horror genre, not something she really enjoys, so we erred on the side of caution and she hung back. I don’t think that was necessary, I think she could have handled it so if the themes of this sound interesting but you are not a horror person, I’d say take a chance. This is recommended for ages 16+ and I’m linking here to content Warning page from Theater Mu.

The story involves 5 friends with complex relational ties as they prepare to spend a weekend at a cabin in the woods. The cabin is near the location of the Snake River Massacre, where in 1887 seven white men murdered 34 Chinese miners for their gold, they were never prosecuted, this is a true event from history. The characters are Ariel played by Kaitlyn Cheng who is pregnant, her brother Tommy played by Gregory Yang, who is part of a band with Doug played by Ryan Colbert, Ben played by Matt Lytle, and Claire, who is also Ben’s wife played by Becca Hart. Ariel is a surrogate for Ben and Claire due to a heart condition Claire has and also used to date Doug. These are old friends who have some tensions floating around about band business and the pregnancy, when things start to happen that put a scare into the group, the underlying tensions and true feeling begin to bubble to the surface. Cheng and Colbert give the best performances as they seem grounded and natural. Hart is also very good, unfortunately her character is rather unlikeable and most likely to benefit from a mirror in which she could see her own behavior reflected back. A challenging acting bit to play the person who is trying to say the right things and seem caring but is only really concerned with herself. Lytle and Yang are OK, but there is an over the top bor vibe from their performances that keep them from feeling real, particularly in the first act of the play. 

Green’s script is excellent even if a little overstuffed with ideas, there are a lot of different themes vying for attention, they all work but there is a sense it might have played a little stronger with a more focused approach. There is an epilogue which adds some shocking information and motivations for a character, but in the final analysis it feels unnecessary and robs the play of a more memorable ending. The direction from Katie Bradley excels in most elements of the production. In the tradition of the great film Director Howard Hawks Green’s use of overlapping dialogue is intended to add an element of realism to a genre work. From a performance standpoint it’s a tricky thing to do and Bradley hasn’t successfully gotten her actors to the point where they seem natural but all the key lines of dialogue are clearly conveyed. These are minimal issues and primarily only occur in that first act. Technically, Bradley handles the production with the skill of a veteran Director. This is a larger scale production with a lot of elements to bring together and she demonstrates how quickly and confidently she’s grown into the role, I’m excited to see what she Directs next, though I hope she hasn’t given up performing for good. It’s a beautifully designed set by Erik Paulson giving us a look at the entire cabin with doors and beams giving us an clear understanding of where walls are meant to be. The Projections by Peter Morrow and Ryan Stopera are effectively used to show us what is happening outside the windows of the cabin, they are used judiciously and create some truly eerie effects. Likewise the lighting design by Karin Olson and sound design by Katherine Horowitz help to make this an effective and at times genuinely scary experience. 

Theater Mu’s production of Hells Canyon runs through March 17th at the Jungle Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatermu.org/hells-canyon

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Photo by Ryan Rich

Headshot of Rob Dunkelberger
Rob Dunkelberger

Rob is a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers and their podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat as well as a syndicating contributor to Minnesota Playlist. Read all his content www.thestagesofmn.com