Twin Cities Horror Festival: Closing the Vein (for now)

That’s it for me for now, folks — the Twin Cities Horror Festival will be running through the ninth, but I’ve covered all of the shows taking place (with the exception of a pair of one-night-only special events). In the interests of ease of access, here’s a brief summary, with links to my reviews:

COMEDIES

The Harty Boys and the Mystery of the Mall of America… of Death!: relentlessly cheerful (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) farce for all ages.
The Murderer Did It!: smart and snappy Agathie Christie parody that reproduces some of the best and worst aspects of the source material.
Spooky Town: wacky, punchline-dense comedy with some loose nods to classic haunted-house flicks.

HORROR

Edgar Allan: incredibly slick, skilfully executed adaptation of some pretty thin source material.
Tainted Love: collection of mostly excellent storytelling and dance pieces that don’t quite hang together.
Hear No Evil: bloody, expressionistic meditation on sin and punishment that I loved deeply, but may be less accessible to those who prefer more straightforward storytelling.

N/A

Trust and Obey: declined to review, as I have a small part in this one.

A few concluding observations:

1) I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the various shows — for all my rambling thoughts and complaints, there’s not a single one that I would point to and call “bad”, which is pretty freaking remarkable, all things considered. I supposed that this is symptomatic of a tightly juried Festival: every show that was asked was invited because of a clear level of competency.

2) more personal, but as a horror fan I have to confess a little disappointment in the lack of straightforward horror: of the six shows I saw, three of them were fairly light parodies. All were quite well-done! But if you’re hoping for some good, unclean fun, it’s a pretty small overall percentage that offers it.

3) this Festival represents a pretty remarkable collection of talent, and you’d be foolish to miss it.

There you have it. Here’s hoping I’ve helped you at least figure out what’s out there and what you’d like to see, whether it lines up my with my own deeply personal preferences or not. Whether you want to make yourself sick from laughter or nausea, there’s no shortage of options here. If you think of it, have a nightmare on me.

“The Devil pulls the strings which make us dance;
We find delight in the most loathsome things;
Some furtherance of Hell each new day brings,
And yet we feel no horror in that rank advance.”

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Twin Cities Horror Festival: Edgar Allan

CAVEAT: I have not worked closely with either Nick Ryan or Katie Hartman, but we’ve been working in the same places and in similar styles long enough to have more than a passing familiarity with each other.

SHOW TITLE: Edgar Allan
PRODUCER: The Coldharts
HAILING FROM: New York
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Little Edgar Allan met his shadow on the first day of school. His shadow follows him everywhere now… sabotaging his plans, stunting his achievements, souring his joy. Little Edgar Allan wants to be rid of his shadow… but Little Edgar Allan is afraid of the dark.

BLOOD: 2/5
AGES: 13+
PRE-CRINGE PROFILE: “We wanted to explore what Edgar might have been like as a boy, and where he might have drawn inspiration from for his later tales of terror.”

…so that Pre-Cringe Profile line suggests that this is a morbid take on “Shakespeare in Love”, then?

I should clarify immediately that I suspect that I’m not in the core audience for this show — Lovecraft clicked for me pretty much right away, but I’ve never been a big fan of Poe. I may or may not have (by which I mean I definitely have) unkindly likened many Poe stories to pitches for sub-par Twilight Zone episodes. I definitely appreciate his stuff more than I like it, and I think I get the buttons that his stories push — he has a thing for fetishization, for describing perversion in poetic or romantic terms, and he’s definitely interested in wildly disproportionate obsession. The latter is present in full force here.

The show is very short at around forty minutes, and it still felt to me like it was being stretched a bit thin — we realize pretty early on exactly where the story is going, and consequently watching the characters stumble towards that conclusion can seem a bit shapeless and meandering. It puts an extraordinary amount of pressure on the performers to sustain our attention.

Fortunately, they can — it’s nothing but fun to watch Katie Hartman’s manic mood swings, and particularly the way she continues to uselessly hurl herself against Nick Ryan’s taciturn demeanor. Her obsessions are so disproportionate that they play easily for comedy, and it’s to the production’s credit that it doesn’t shy away from that. They’re never anything less than energetic and engaging to watch, which goes a long damn way.

Not all the way, I’m afraid. This is pretty much the best adaptation of the source style that I could imagine — my issue is that there’s just not that much there. I’m confident that anyone with even a passing admiration for Poe’s particular neuroses, though, will have an opportunity for some pretty unmixed delight.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Pre-Cringe Profile: Edgar Allan

CAVEAT: I have not worked closely with either Nick Ryan or Katie Hartman, but we’ve been working in the same places and in similar styles long enough to have more than a passing familiarity with each other.

SHOW TITLE: Edgar Allan
PRODUCER: The Coldharts
HAILING FROM: New York
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Little Edgar Allan met his shadow on the first day of school. His shadow follows him everywhere now… sabotaging his plans, stunting his achievements, souring his joy. Little Edgar Allan wants to be rid of his shadow… but Little Edgar Allan is afraid of the dark.

INTERVIEWEE: Nick Ryan and Katie Hartman

What makes you such an expert on the amygdala, anyway?

We are Katie Hartman and Nick Ryan of The Coldharts. We are theatre artists who trained in Minneapolis, and are now based in Brooklyn, New York. Nick is a playwright and improvisor and Katie is an actress, singer and songwriter; with our powers combined, we creat physically-based, historically-inspired, music-theatre. “The Legend of White Woman Creek” was our first collaboration together, and created specifically for the first Twin Cities Horror Festival. This summer we had the pleasure of touring “The Legend of White WOman Creek” to Fringe Festivals in Kansas City, Minneapolis, and Edmonton, ALberta, where the Edmonton journal called it “an absolute triumph of music, production and mischievous willingness to unnerve.”

What’s so spooky about your show?

Well, what could be spookier than the Master of the Macabre as a pre-teen? “Edgar Allan” Is the story of a clever little boy with an opportunity to reinvent himself at a new school. There is just one complication: another boy is just as clever.

Edgar Allan? Wait a minute — that sounds kind of like Edgar Allan Poe. Just who do you think you’re fooling?

No one! “Edgar Allan” is about Edgar Allan Poe. For the first three lustrums of his life (that’s 15 years in Poe-speak) he went by the surname of his guardians, the Allans. “Edgar Allan” focuses on the author as a precocious eleven year old boy at a boarding school in England. We wanted to explore what Edgar might have been like as a boy, and where he might have drawn inspiration from for his later tales of terror. English boarding schools are often synonymous with society and gentle breeding, but in the early 19th century, they were more Lord of the Flies than Harry Potter.

Reveal your greatest fear to me and the whole world.

Katie: I have a very intense love-hate relationship with snakes.

Nick: I have an irrational fear of pet dogs. I’m pretty certain they snap from time to time and rip out the nearest throat.

Justify your show’s existence in the form of a macabre limerick.

A boy of superior imagination
To be best is his one fascination
Using sticks and stones
And musical tones
Fear accrues through anticipation

Twin Cities Horror Festival: Spooky Town

CAVEAT: Mike Fotis (one of the writer/performers) is a founding member of the Rockstar Storytellers, and we have worked on a handful of spoken-word events through the years.

SHOW TITLE: Spooky Town
PRODUCER: Ferrari McSpeedy
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Four adults return to the orphanage that scarred them for a chance at 1 million dollars. Little do they know, the money will be splattered in their blood!!!!!!!!!!

BLOOD: 4/5 (Buh, seriously?)
AGES: 13+
PRE-CRINGE PROFILE: “Spooky Town is our first attempt at Horror, which breaks down into beats that are very similar to comedy.”

I’m not sure I’m convinced by that line from their Pre-Cringe Profile. I mean, I agree with the underlying point and it is therefore correct because I always am, but I’m not sure that this was all that structurally or tonally or rhythmically different from a typical Ferrari McSpeedy show. (Which is not at all a bad thing, because a typical Ferrari McSpeedy show is a thing of wonder.)

In my review for The Murderer did it! I wrote “…this isn’t just a mystery with some fine clowning slathered across the top.” That’s kind of exactly what this show is. It’s certainly the most punchline-dense of the comedies in the Festival this year — at times it feels almost like a snappy stand-up routine, scarcely willing to let ten seconds float past without another laugh. The other two parodies (I’m including The Harty Boys here) are more farcical, relying on wild and serpentine plot twists — this feels more like sketch comedy: the narrative’s really just there to hang jokes on, and the show lives or dies on the strength of its individual one-liners and sight gags.

The reason that all of this is okay is the fact that the jokes work. This show features some very fine comics, doing the very thing that they do best: zany, stream-of-consciousness nonsense. If that’s what you’re looking for (and why wouldn’t you be?), this is the place to find it.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Twin Cities Horror Festival: Tainted Love

CAVEAT: Courtney McLean (the storyteller) is a founding member of the Rockstar Storytellers, and I have worked *extensively* with her over the years.

SHOW TITLE: Tainted Love
PRODUCER: Erin Sheppard Presents
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: From sirens of the sea, to toys that are tired of being played with, find out just how horrifying love can be. From the group that created last year’s Bump in the Night, Tainted Love uses cheeky story-telling and lively dance to delve into the horror that love can bring. Can you love yourself too much? Love of technology is a good thing, right? One thing is for certain, sometimes love can kill you.

BLOOD: 2/5
AGES: 13+
PRE-FRINGE PROFILE: Ummm…you’ve been in love before, right?”

Actually, that caveat at the top of the post may be insufficient — enough so that if I wasn’t determined to review every show in the Festival, I might recuse myself from this one. I very much believe every member of the Rockstars to be an excellent writer/performer (they wouldn’t be in the group otherwise), but we get some pretty intense exposure to each other’s work — it’s one thing to see a storyteller once a year, quite another to see them month after month at various events for years on end. It’s impossible not to develop a hypersensitivity to each other’s performance tics and structural devices. I just don’t know that I can fairly speak to how her stories play to someone without that degree of familiarity. (I will observe that the Courtney onstage for this show is probably the one less-well known to her followers, but it is my personal favorite Courtney: a little bit darker, a little more expressionistic, a little more imaginative.)

I have not, however, seen Erin Sheppard’s company at work before, and was pleased with what I saw — they’re consistently playful and energetic, throwing up big sloppy fun with wild abandon, and there’s a real lightness of touch even in the more macabre pieces. Tonally, they would seem to be well-matched to Courtney’s style. And I love variety shows. So why was I having trouble with the transition from one to the other?

Perhaps partly because Courtney’s material here is uncharacteristically dense, which I applaud — but I often found myself zoning out sequences in both halves, because I was working to readjust. Oddly, I found myself thinking that I might enjoy the two shows more in isolation from each other — I’d gleefully take an hour of dark storytelling from Courtney, or an hour of high-energy dancing from the company, but I found that they didn’t complement each other well for me. An oddly lukewarm conclusion, regarding a show with so many pieces in it that I enjoyed, but my overall impression was one of tonal whiplash.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Twin Cities Horror Festival: Hear No Evil

SHOW TITLE: Hear No Evil
PRODUCER: RawRedMeat Productions
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Seven women work here.
Do not ask what they do,
Nor why they do it.
Their business is blood,
And no one can stop its flowing.

BLOOD: 5/5 (Wow, they are not kidding)
AGES: 16+
PRE-CRINGE PROFILE: I first was introduced to horror theater when I learned about the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris- the self-proclaimed “Theater of Fear and Terror”.

For me, one of the key scenes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula takes place about halfway through the novel. Up until that point, the title character has been a completely mysterious, almost omnipotent figure — he can crawl down walls, hypnotize, fly, command animals and storms, seemingly appear and disappear at will. He’s terrifying because he’s demonic, incomprehensible — and the central characters are entirely at his mercy.

Then there’s the scene in which, finally, Van Helsing sits down with all of those characters and exhaustively briefs them about what Dracula is, his history, his limitations and vulnerabilities. That is exactly the point that the tale stops being horror and becomes a more conventional adventure story.

This is a very, very tricky tightrope for a more expressionistic horror piece to walk. Explain too much, and you rob it of all of its mystery and power — explain too little, and what you’re watching is random chaos. This is complicated by the fact that different audience members have widely varying expectations. What I’m saying is that, for the single data point that is me, this show walked that tightrope very, very well.

I was never given great detail, but I was given exactly as much information as I needed to follow what was going on. I knew that there was a group of women, and that they had a very dangerous, unsettling job. I knew that “the night shift” was something that they had a genuine, mortal terror of. I knew that when the lights shifted, no actress on the stage gave me a false moment: they became tense and alert, shifted together for safety, and I was concerned for them. I knew that if one of them removed her ear protection when that was happening, the results were really, really fucking bad. I didn’t need more detail than that.

Likewise, the company seemed to be in clear control of what I didn’t know. One of the women obsessively recited Catholic prayers — but I had no idea if, in this world, those softly spoken magic spells had power, or were merely an empty compulsion.

This kind of thing has to be driven — almost entirely — by physical cues from the company. I’ve seen magicians pull scarves out of their mouths before, but when I see a weak and frightened woman pulling a thread from her throat — gagging as it catches — watching her shaking hands and barely repressed nausea — I know that it means something. To be clear — what makes this work is not that I know what it means, but that I never doubted that they did.

I personally found the final (oddly Catholic) explanation to be a masterstroke — it wasn’t a pat explanation that diminished the torment of the individual characters, but told me enough about who they were and why this was happening to them — that it clarified that what we were witnessing was as much a moral torment as a physical one.

(I should clarify that I don’t think everyone in the audience was on the same page as me. There was definitely some chuckling in the moments that I was watching tense, breathless. It’s a show that shows us some very strange images, and I can easily see how they could be comical to someone who hasn’t, say, wasted a lifetime of obsession on this kind of thematic material.)

The first two shows I saw were excellent — cleverly conceived and skilfully executed — and I wouldn’t hesitate to invite just about anyone I know to them. I can’t think of many people I would cheerfully recommend this one to. If I’ve been at all coy about this, let me be perfectly clear and state that this is one of my favorite things I’ve seen on a stage in a damn long while. It made me intensely jealous of the work they get to do — of the work they apparently still have the moral courage to do. In a little way and for a little while, it made me fall in love again with the unique feats that our medium alone is capable of.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

Twin Cities Horror Festival: The Murderer Did It!

SHOW TITLE: The Murderer Did It!
PRODUCER: Four Humors
HAILING FROM: Minnesota
SHOW DESCRIPTION: Seven strangers. A remote location. A web of lies. Unexplained deaths. Everyone is a suspect, but in the end you’ll be shocked to find… it was the murderer all along! An original murder mystery from the creators of last year’s Harold.

BLOOD: 1/5
AGES: 13+
PRE-FRINGE PROFILE: “Originally our plan was to just do an Agatha Christie…but as I read through some of the old plays…I started to wonder, ‘Why aren’t these people trying harder to get out of this death trap?'”

I’ve long been obsessed with slasher flicks, and when I was a teenager I (much to my mother’s bafflement and dismay) had a period of obsession with Wes Craven’s Scream. It marked something of a rebirth of the genre with a more modern sensibility, featuring characters who were horror buffs constantly commenting on the action surrounding them. (Y’know, like Cabin in the Woods, but sixteen years earlier and oh God I’m having an aging moment.) I had a number of friends who were equally baffled by my fascination, derisive of the central schtick: “It’s just a cheesy horror movie with guys talking about how scary it all is.”

Ah, but…I Think It Goes Deeper Than That (TM). The very fact that the characters are conscious of the tropes raises the possibility of subverting them. It clearly establishes a set of expectations for both them and us, and horror, like comedy, is all about fucking with your expectations.

So when I say that this show reminds of Scream — only for, like, the 1930s predecessor of the slasher flick — I mean that as a hearty compliment. Hell, it even uses much of the same formula and many of the same character types — from the goofy sociopath with an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre to the pragmatist wondering where the hell everyone’s survival instinct went.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that this isn’t just a mystery with some fine clowning slathered across the top. (Although the clowning is fine. I usually lurk in the back, but another critic urged me to sit near the front, to watch the actors’ faces. I was dubious, but I have shitty eyesight, and he was right — there was some very subtle, very funny stuff.) This isn’t just parody, it’s homage — it invites you to figure out what’s going on, and plays fair by giving us some characters who are as self-aware as we are.

(I would complain that it doesn’t play fair enough to give us the tools we need to actually have a shot at solving the mystery ourselves, but that’s a complaint I have about Agatha Christie, too, so at least it’s faithful to the source material.)

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!