Circus of Blood, Smorgasbord of Pain/Haunted Houses, or Is Everyone Pleasantly Addicted!? | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Circus of Blood, Smorgasbord of Pain/Haunted Houses, or Is Everyone Pleasantly Addicted!?


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Prop Theatre
at the Garage

In Circus of Blood, Smorgasbord of Pain, Prop Theatre presents for our edification five stories meant to drive us mad with tension and fear. Unfortunately the show's trio of authors have badly miscalculated, and instead of inspiring fear, these pathetically adolescent and pathologically sexist stories inspire by turn disgust, disinterest, and outrage.

In the tradition of Night Gallery and Tales From the Crypt, each story is introduced by a creepy master of ceremonies, a gross, perverse ringmaster played with hammy sliminess by Dan Schroeder. Dressed in a top hat, red jacket, and black pants, Schroeder saunters around the stage cracking his whip and delivering long-winded speeches about what is and what is not horrifying, using a delivery that should have died with vaudeville. "So there you are," he booms, "like so many good sheep waiting for the slaughter. . . . you helpless, hopeless, damned souls. . . . I have come to give you what you want--blood and fire, presented here for your edification and enjoyment."

But sadly the tales--either written or adapted by Jonathan Lavan, Charles Pike, and Kevin Hackett--never live up to the ringmaster's grandiose introductions. Though they're not for the squeamish, not one is truly scary, and only the evening's last--a version of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart"--keeps our attention from beginning to end.

The first tale consists of little more than an extended interview with a female mortician (Ariel Brenner) who has a rather perverse relationship with her corpses. The director, Jonathan Lavan, helpfully illustrates the mortician's perversion with a disgusting bit of mimed necrophilia in the stage area behind the interview. Watching this gratuitously voyeuristic ending, it's hard not to feel sorry for the actress (Deborah Sale) who must fake sex with a corpse three nights a week just because some creepy director told her to.

Such sexual perversity is all too common in this show, which owes as much to the Marquis de Sade as it does to Edgar Allan Poe and Will Elder. In the second tale, a professor (Alan Baranowski) uses the excuse of a lecture on cultural anthropology to tell us a few of his favorite sexual fantasies, all of which involve rape. In one, a strong and spiritually whole Indian brave chases a "she-man" through the woods before knocking her on the head and having his way with her "still, dormant" body. In another, the professor describes the rape of a nun on a CTA el platform, repeatedly asserting that she actually enjoys the act--"She is eating this up." "Not to worry," the repugnant ringmaster assures us. "The CTA police arrived on the scene--ten minutes after the attack."

The third story is the most troubling of all. In a series of monologues, a once-beautiful TV personality (Sale) recounts how she was brutally attacked and scarred by a crazed knife-wielding fan. In between her speeches, the lunatic fan, now incarcerated in an insane asylum but about to be set free, tells his side of the story. In almost pornographic terms, he describes his attraction to the woman--"Your clothes cling to you like paint. . . . your round ass [is] like a little girl's"--and recounts in detail how he stalked his victim and "set her free" by slashing her face and breasts. What makes this sketch especially repulsive is the way we are invited to feel sympathy for, and even identify with, the attacker's point of view. Must we see yet another infantile male-revenge fantasy, a la Halloween and Friday the 13th, in which a woman suffers merely because some madman finds her attractive? Too much of our popular culture is devoted to the humiliation of women as it is. This isn't horror, this is horrible.

As if three tales of misguided misogyny weren't enough, each is set off from the others by one section from a three-part blackout sketch in which a woman (Brenner) watching TV late at night receives a mysterious package. The first time the package contains a disposable razor. The second time, a hairbrush. And the third time, a mannequin head. I suppose, going by the way the actress screams and screams, this is supposed to be a real head. Really stupid.

The only redeeming feature of this disgusting, disappointing show is their version of "The Tell-Tale Heart." Poe's artful writing, read well by narrator Charles Pike, is a tremendous relief after the hour or so of bad prose that precedes it. But the subject--a madman's murder of another man--seems absolutely novel after so many variations on the same obsessive theme of man's cruelty to woman. Even the acting is better in "The Tell-Tale Heart." There's always the temptation to turn a Poe story into an opportunity for mugging; but this cast and director show rare restraint. The last few minutes of Circus of Blood prove the best.

Unfortunately, one worthwhile story well told hardly makes up for four miserable, offensive ones.


Shaman Society
at Blue Rider Theater

Although less sexually perverse than Circus of Blood, Shaman Society's Haunted Houses, or Is Everyone Pleasantly Addicted!? proves to be no more mature or satisfying. Despite a set that could pass for a haunted playroom, with oversized toys strewn everywhere and an upright coffin half-hidden in a corner, the show really isn't concerned with supernatural matters at all. Instead writer/director Jonathan Pitts has turned his attention to the everyday matters and moments of quiet desperation that bedevil all our lives.

Pitts studied with seven masters of Second City's improvisational games, among them Del Close, Paul Sills, David Shepherd, and Michael Gelman, before joining Donna Blue Lachman's performance workshop. And here he's set about using the structure of a Second City comedy revue to explore the sort of serious subjects Lachman is known for: loneliness, personal identity, and death. But the results of this experiment are mixed.

Parts of Pitts's show work quite well, in particular a fairy tale about a young woman's journey to the Hall of the Mountain King in search of her lost father; it's reminiscent of Paul Sills's story theater. Unfortunately, such scenes are the exception in this long, tedious show.

Much of it sinks under the weight of Pitts's self-indulgent tendency to confuse obscurity with profundity. This is never more apparent than in a pair of scenes about love. In the first scene a particularly pathetic man (Joel Tatom) reads aloud his profoundly self-pitying poem about a recently begun love affair. "Don't let this be another mirage," he whines, and then continues on with ten or so lines of extremely bad verse. This scene is followed by one in which his new beloved (Karrin Sachs) reads her understandably wary but no less pathetic reply: "Don't become my solo spotlight." It's not hard to understand the pair's fears, but it is hard to feel pity for two so determined to hide their feelings behind such obscure poetry.

Other scenes fail because Pitts cannot decide whether they're comic or serious. In "Candy Man," one of the great salesmen of the confection industry suffers a nervous breakdown, the major symptom of which is a hallucinated gigantic "candy cone" that follows him wherever he goes. The image of a gigantic talking candy cone is just silly enough that if Pitts played the scene for laughs it could be quite funny. Unfortunately Pitts directs the scene as if it were a five-minute Death of a Salesman, which doesn't work at all.

Other scenes fail because they are too similar to stock improv bits--a sick family on vacation, a group of strangers waiting in an emergency room--to look like anything but bad improvisational comedy.

Pitts's seven-member cast is as inconsistent as his sketches. Some cast members, most notably Sal Iacopelli, Jenifer Weber, and Karrin Sachs, seem quite comfortable onstage; they clearly could handle better material if it were available. Other actors--the guilty parties know who they are--should take more acting classes before they venture out in public again.

In the end, the show falters because Pitts has not wandered as far from his Second City roots as he thinks he has, with the result that Haunted Houses comes off as a kind of Second City revue with punch lines surgically removed.

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