There Are So Many Ways to Die: Twin Cities Horror Festival 2019
It's that time of year, folks! Time to drape the Southern Theater in bones and blood and scare the bejeezus out of yourselves. It's the Twin Cities Horror Festival!
This is the eighth year of Horror Fest, and we have twelve shows vying to define what horror looks like on stage. I managed to make it to ten of them in the opening weekend, and now I'm exhausted, and I kind of have the taste copper in my mouth. But, it was all worth it. This year's lineup runs pulls fear and terror from sources far and wide. Death in space. Death in cold Michigan waters. Death in church. Death by bug. It's all here, and it's all waiting for you. In fact, it's right behind you...
Tim Uren is a master storyteller. No matter the show or subject, I learn something new from his work every time I see him (his incredible Lovecraft adaptation, The Rats in the Walls, is indelibly inked on my brain). This time around, Uren writes a death-obsessed love letter to his home state of Michigan. He weaves together personal life stories with the historical tales of Michigan tragedies and all the bodies that fueled the iron ore trade along the way. Even though the show lingers over death and disaster, and Uren reminds the audience several times that he has a cemetery plot waiting for him back in Michigan, a good deal of the show is really quite funny and heartwarming.
This is the first time around the block for this particular script, so it's missing some of the polish that I've seen on Uren's past work. Some of the connective tissue between the stories could use some beefing up (his telling of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald through the radio calls back and forth with another boat is haunting, but I don't have a clear idea of how it connects to his family stories, other than that the famous ship happened to sink in Michigan waters). There was some shakiness on lines in the opening night performance, which Uren copped to in a off-the-cuff aside.
However, these are small complaints. Tim Uren is, as usual, a nimble and engaging storyteller and Michigan Disasters is an enjoyable hour of storytelling.
Horror Show Hot Dog
During the rest of the year the Horror Show Hot Dog is a long-running podcast where some dudes watch horror movies every week and talk about them; during the Horror Festival, HSHD mutates into a fine little short film festival. It started off five years or so ago with the guys combing through YouTube and asking low budget filmmakers if it was OK to show their videos in the big screen. Now, it's grown into a well-curated event with short films from all over the world, many of which are not available anywhere online.
The shorts are an eclectic mix. On the opening night of HSHD we saw (among other films) an old-style-Burtonesque stop motion animation of the old folk tale of The Big Toe; an arty AF black-and-white piece about the haunted Borley Rectory that seriously arted so hard, you guys; a creepy casting session that ends in blood; and (my favorite) the very short and masterful Puzzle, which should be taught in film school as an object lesson in achieving situation and mood in horror without showing a drop of blood or babbling a bunch of dialogue.
Every night is a different slate of short films, both foreign and domestic. You may not like them all. You may passionately disagree with someone over which films are better. But at the end of every night, the audience votes on which short was the best, so we can actually all find out which one of you passionately disagreeing folks is wrong. For example, the winner from the evening I watched was not Puzzle, but the creepy casting session, Lili. So, I guess I am now definitively wrong. That's good to know. Maybe I'll be less wrong at the rest of the HSHD showings.
These days, shadow puppetry is far more than just putting a puppet in front of a light and behind a screen. Puppeteers now incorporate a whole range of high and low-tech tricks; with illustrated transparencies, small flat puppets, and a few overhead projectors, we can leave the realm of mere shadows. When it's done well, this type of shadow puppetry is like watching a living cartoon.
Bug Girl incorporates a lot of these latter-day shadow puppet tricks to varying degrees of success. Creator Liz Howls has a nice design aesthetic, Dan Dukich's score is tight and effective, and all the puppeteers behind the screens do their jobs well, but the play still feels unfinished. There are stretches where not much happens, not much gets resolved, and the mechanics of how or why the title character suddenly turns into a brain-hungry bug after swallowing another bug are baffling to me. It has the tone of a play meant for little kids, and it doesn't really grow up as the subject matter becomes darker, which creates some weird dissonance that doesn't feel intentional. And it ends with a slide declaring "To Be Continued...", which hand waves away anything that didn't get finished.
Bug Girl is very much a work in progress. The program declares this production "a full-length draft that will be further developed and redesigned." Some people will find that charming and endearing (the crowd was certainly full of vocal fans on opening night), but others might be disappointed in paying for a full price ticket only to find out that they're just watching a workshop production. Underwritten by a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation, I'm sure it will continue in its development, but right now it feels like a first draft that's still a ways away from hitting its stride.
The Obscura Factory
Last year, Jody Christopherson's show St. Kilda was one of the Horror Festival most memorable performances. As a solo performer with nothing but a few microphones, audio effects and some household objects, she constructed a looping, claustrophobic play, both dreamlike and nightmarish. This year, Christopherson has returned with a very different kind of solo show, and it's every bit as good.
AMP is the story of Mary Shelley, leading up to her famous creation of Frankenstein. Using text from Shelley, her husband, mother, and father (as well as that Romantic jackass Lord Byron), Christopherson paints a much more rich and full picture of Mary. She is a fiercely intelligent and rebellious woman, the scion of two just as fiercely intelligent and rebellious parents, muddling through a time in history in which science and culture were calling up for question seemingly every old world way of thinking. That is, of course, except for the place of women in that society.
Christopherson nails the 19th century Gothic horror vibe with some simple, but evocative props and set pieces, a layered and moody sound design (I would expect nothing less after St. Kilda), and a great use of that all-encompassing light plot at the Southern to create atmosphere. (There's also stage fog. Lots of stage fog.) Beyond all the tech and literary backstory, though, her performance as Mary Shelley is electric and engrossing. Even if you don't know much about Frankenstein,or Mary Shelley, this show still works. And, if you do, it exists in interesting conversation with the way the history and literature was probably taught to you.
I am not normally a fan of Grand Guignol antics on stage. I know a lot of people find the shock value of realistic blood 'n' guts titillating; but, once the shock is over, I've usually found that there's not much more there than the shock. For me, the glee that many bloody, bloody horror producers take in trying to up the ante on shock value is far more disturbing in its cruel emptiness than anything I've ever seen them put up on stage or screen. So, I was reluctant to check out Dangerous Productions, which has a long-running reputation for gore, gore and more gore. This is a company that mixes up whole vats of stage blood and has to put down a tarp before performing. It's probably not my thing.
However, Frankenstein was a pleasant surprise. More "inspired by" Mary Shelley's work than "adapted from," it's the disturbing tale of a damaged loner whose quest to resurrect life has utterly consumed and destroyed him. Lit almost entirely with just a couple of high-powered flashlights, the cast uses carefully crafted choreography and the disorienting darkness to create some truly impressive transitions and reveals. With almost nothing on stage, they conjure a dreamlike, hallucinatory environment in which past and present, life and death bleed over into each other queasily. It's devastatingly effective. And, yes, there is the requisite realistic gore, but it's not all-consuming. Instead, it is deployed in limited moments to deepen and reveal characters and relationships. The blood effects support, rather than supplant, the story, and they make it much more horrifying than sloppily butchering a realistic fake corpse on stage.
One of the reasons that cinema tends to be more effective at horror than stage productions is the problem of controlling the audience's point of view. Within the tight confines of a camera frame, it is easier to constrain and direct the audience toward what you want them to see. With a live theater audience free to swivel their eyeballs in whatever direction they want--it's a much harder feat. Dangerous Productions accomplishes this masterfully in Frankenstein, and it's a real treat to watch.
An Improvised Spooky Musical
The Shrieking Harpies
Lizzie Gardner, Taj Ruler and Hannah Wydeven (along with Justin Nellis on keyboard) are so damn good at what they do, it's hard to believe. With a few random (and usually quite dumb) suggestions from the audience, they manage to stitch together on the fly an hour-long show that not only has a cohesive plot and story structure, but also features multiple songs that themselves have cohesive plots and structures.
Since it's improv, the Spooky Musical will be different every night. On my particular night, the Harpies were tasked with creating a slasher story where the killer (named "Steve") conducted his murder rampage while dressed in a tomato costume. They spun this out into an elaborate story where a frustrated teenage artist working late at a pizza joint stumbles into an elaborate world of a town's curse, a pair of vengeful ghosts and an evil deal with dark forces to build a capitalist empire of Italian food.
Of course, the night you attend will be completely different, so none of those details matter. What matters, though, is that the Shrieking Harpies will undoubtedly pull off this high wire act again. It's the kind of high-level improv that can only be accomplished by a talented group of individuals who have worked together long enough to achieve an impressive symbiosis. There is no one leader directing events; there is just an incredible amount of listening and trust that allows them to move forward discovering the show in the moment, just as the audience is. Aside from all that over-analysis, they're also extremely funny, and you may want to come back and watch again, just to assure yourself that none of what you saw was planned ahead of time.
Erin Sheppard Presents and Reverend Matt's Monster Science
I've long enjoyed Erin Sheppard's monster-themed dance shows at the Horror Festival, and in the past several years I have become an acolyte of Reverend Matt's Monster Science, so it was pretty much a no-brainer for me that the two would come together at some point. This time around, Reverend Matt gives us an irreverent and informative lecture on various female folkloric monsters from around the world, and Sheppard's crew alternates with dances built around said monsters.
The dance pieces themselves are more literal than abstract interpretations of the Monster Science information: a lecture on Inuit spirits that tap on the arctic ice from below before grabbing children turns into a drowning-themed tap routine; the story of seductive South American river dolphins who become a gaggle of dancing dolphin ladies (with hats to hide their telltale blowholes) enticing a man into their circle; Matt's explanation of Irish banshees turns into a love-triangle-murder-dance, complete with a pair of shrieking, white spirits. Though the lecture portions do dwell seriously for a time on all the misguided and malignant reasons that patriarchal societies seem to come up with so many female monsters, the emphasis of the show is usually on humor and fun.
Oncoming Productions was already doing dark things before they ever landed at Horror Fest. (From time to time, I still think about their disturbing, off-kilter The Last Bombardment in the 2017 Fringe Festival). Geminae is a slightly retooled remount of their successful 2018 Fringe run.
In a capsule in orbit around earth, astronaut Cassie is slowly running out of oxygen, and her only tether to earth is her sister Helen down in Mission Control. They both work for a private outfit doing unspecified things in space, and a series of events, accidentally triggered by stupid corporate politics and a manager desperately trying to save his own ass, has doomed poor Cassie. That's not even where the horror of this show begins (though, it did make me shudder thinking forward to all the horrible ways that the Elon Musks of the future are going to kill people in space while trying to make a buck off them).
Just as when I first saw Geminae at Fringe, I was most taken by the moments of Cassie floating in space. The problems of properly portraying weightlessness are simply and effectively handled by a series of dance lifts provided by a performer (called "The Void" in the program). It's a very theatrical solution, but it works. It's actually quite beautiful in moments, and I wish we could have lasted longer there. The latter portion of the show turns into a sort of vengeful ghost story by way of modern technology, and it's there that the story and pacing starts to fall apart a little. It feels like some of the reveals of what's actually going on to cause the death and mayhem on the ground have just been told in the wrong order.
Still, Geminae has plenty going for it. Erik Ostrom's score is appropriately icy and ominous, the tension between the malfunctioning capsule and the hapless Mission Control is palpable, and the connection between the sisters is real, even when one of them is floating off into the void.
As luck would have it, there are two different Horror Fest shows this year that delve into space-based horror. In Charcoal Moon, the events take place much further from earth, where three ships have been sent on a twelve-year mission to recover a MacGuffin from a moon in the Kuiper Belt that promises to solve all the earth's energy problems. The captain of one of the ships decides to leapfrog the others with a dangerous maneuver that puts him at the target well ahead of them. When the second ship finally arrives, they find the first one adrift and powered down. Things go more wrong from there.
Charcoal Moon spends some time exploring some of the real ramifications of space travel that translate well into accentuating a horror story (the interminable time and distances, the bodily degradation, the boredom and disconnection from loved ones) and plays fast and loose with others that could put a unique spin on the genre (weightlessness is done away with by a single line of dialogue and the precariousness of space suits is completely absent). It also relies heavily on prerecorded video that takes up a fair chunk of the run time. Sometimes the video is effective in revealing character and story, and other times it interferes with the plot by simply running too long. The thing that took out the first crew is revealed somewhat hastily near the end of the show, and the play ends rather abruptly soon after this reveal. I can't help but think about the story beats and scary bits that might have been pushed out of the way to make room for the videos.
The videos are well-produced, though. And once the action gets going, the actors maintain the tension through to the end, aided by a subtle and effective sound design and spare use of the lights in the Southern's dark, cavernous space. And kudos to the author for playing against stereotypes by making the Canadian in the crew the surliest of the bunch.
Special When Lit
Incarnate puts you right into the world of the play the moment you walk into the theater. You're greeted by the exuberantly happy devotees of this particular religious sect and given a program with prayers, songs and creeds that will be used in the services. There are overtly religious songs and pop songs given a religious bent that the authors never intended, and all around you are glassy eyes and enthusiastic smiles. You stand and sit at the appropriate times. You may be called up to the stage to receive a blessing. If you're non-religious or brought up in one of the more traditional faiths, it can feel a little over-the-top and off-putting, but if you grew up around particularly performative Southern Baptists and Pentacostals or just had one friend who dragged you to some weird non-denominational church that one time, it may seem pretty familiar and harmless.
Of course, this is Horror Festival, so you know the strangeness of this night's services is going to keep ramping up. Incarnate accomplishes this transition quite well, inching the participants further and further into the cultish faith built up around "Caretaker Dan." As Dan, Zach Morgan slips perfectly into the role of a cult leader. He proclaims, prophesies and professes through a dizzying array of tactics to sell his flock on a strange mishmash of Christianity and nature worship. At his side is his right-hand woman Marigold ("Our Herald") played with insane energy by Lauren Anderson. Watching the two of them in action is a rapid-fire study in all the sinister methods that real-world cults employ to cajole and control otherwise reasonable, intelligent people.
You won't know how at first , but you can be damn sure this is going to end in blood. The scariest part, though, is that it is apparent that the adherents of Caretaker Dan are going to continue to spin his gospel of surrender and sacrifice to even worse ends in the future.