(heres something you WON'T see in my theater, not because I don't think its a great Gospel device for kids to put on in LEGITIMATE churches, but because i believe that a secular theater doing "Hell House", albeit 'verbatim' is playing with Holy Things, they're playing with fire....for about two seconds, a few years back, I had an idea to do a show using Chick Tracts, verbatim, and the company thought that would be "cool", and then the Lord spoke to me and said "NO, they want to make fun of the faith"...of course, i immediately dropped this idea.)
October 14, 2006
THEATER REVIEW | 'HELL HOUSE'
A Guided Tour of Hell, With an Appearance by Satan
By BEN BRANTLEY
According to Satans spokesman, a vermilion-faced guy in a black cape, irony is so-o-o-o 20th century. That would also appear to be (for the moment, anyway) the opinion of Les Freres Corbusier, the stunt-savvy young theater company that is sponsoring Satans stay in Brooklyn this month.
Les Freres, whose approach to art lies somewhere between P. T. Barnum and Dada, have brought to New York an irony-free facsimile of the Halloween entertainment known as a Hell House an evangelical Christian chamber of horrors that has been multiplying amoebalike throughout the United States in recent years.
Under the direction of Alex Timbers, Hell House, which opened this week at St. Anns Warehouse amid the urban chic of the Dumbo neighborhood in Brooklyn, presents its visions of the fiery agonies that await non-Christians with nary a wink or roll of the eyes.
Well, almost, and its a crucial almost. For the most part, this production closely follows the look and text proposed by Pastor Keenan Roberts the Colorado minister who has done much to popularize Hell Houses by selling kits with scripts and design advice. (Suggestion for the abortion sequence: a meat product that will resemble as much as possible pieces of a baby.) But there is one significant interpolated scene that directly points the finger at those who have come to scoff.
The setting is the eighth stop on the demon-guided tour of rooms presenting hellbound sinners in action, which has already included men who marry men and a girl who goes to a rave and is gang-raped. Unlike the earlier vignettes, which have involved a lot of screaming and simulated bloodshed, this one looks comfortingly, even tediously familiar.
Three young adults sit in a coffee bar, talking about staples of cultural satire like The Onion and Jon Stewart.
One of them proposes putting together a comedy project about fundamentalist religion, and they begin riffing on the possibilities of parodying Christian rock and portraying Jesus. The conversation is interrupted by a posse of devils, who carry these wise guys straight to hell.
This segment, titled The Ironists, was inspired by a mock Hell House staged in Los Angeles in 2004, featuring comedians like Bill Maher and Sarah Silverman. But its inclusion in the Freres version has a more far-reaching resonance, and for many viewers it will probably feel more personal than any of the grislier scenes. For what The Ironists suggests is that, according to the logic of Hell House, the very attitude that inspired many New Yorkers the type who wear their eyebrows in their hairlines to buy tickets for this production is exactly what damns them to an eternity in flames.
Thats pretty much it in the way of distancing commentary from Les Freres Corbusier, and it is woven so seamlessly into the broader, blood-spattered fabric of Hell House that it doesnt call attention to itself. Instead, the moment functions as a barely perceptible, comradely nod from a creative team to its audience.
The scene is further evidence that for Les Freres, and a generation of artists now in their 20s and 30s, irony is coolest when its worn as an invisible undergarment instead of as a flashy fashion accessory. This sensibility informed the companys best-known previous project, A Very Merry Unauthorized Childrens Scientology Pageant, in which schoolchildren act out the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. (That show is to be revived at the New York Theater Workshop next month.)
Otherwise, Hell House plays it as straight as a stretch of highway through the cornfields of Kansas. Camping, in this self-enclosed universe, is what Boy Scouts do in the woods. The members of the large young cast never present the plights or beliefs of the people they are portraying in quotation marks.
That includes the participants in a gay wedding (followed closely by a hospital scene, in which one of the grooms is dying of AIDS) and the black-clad student who perpetrates a Columbine High School-like massacre. Archness is the exclusive province of the infernal tour guide and Satan himself, who sound more like bona fide New Yorkers than anyone else in the show.
Because the interest of Hell House is more anthropological than theatrical pitched as it is to people to whom it will probably seem as exotic as Margaret Meads Samoa there isnt a lot for a theater critic to comment on. As a veteran visitor of spook houses, I feel qualified to say what the scariest parts are by nonpolitical standards. That would be the claustrophobic simulated womb (home to a fetus thats about to be aborted) and the Dante-style corridor of hell, where the damned reach out from peepholes begging for help (though Ive been on blocks in New York that are nearly as bad).
As someone who grew up among Southern Baptists, I can also vouch for the rightness of tone of the post-tour reception, where Kool-Aid and doughnuts are served to the strains of live Christian rock, which brought back memories of church basement gatherings in the 1970s.
Since I have relatives who probably believe that I am bound for hell, I am perhaps more immunized against the real sadness that is implicit in Hell Houses. Pitched principally at impressionable teenagers, who are by nature narcissists, Hell Houses shrewdly play to the selfishness of their visitors. They are not about compassion for the suffering they show but about the possibility of such suffering happening to you.
In the reception room, by the way, there is a cardboard cutout of Jesus (who was earlier embodied in the flesh by an actor of intimidating sincerity) on which people are encouraged to pin pieces of paper on which they have written their sins. Among the confessions the night I was there: I am a man and I wear Capri pants and I think Jesus is hot, as well as more somber and expected declarations (I kill people in the name of religion).
Obviously, Hell House is a bring-your-own-irony sort of affair.
From the official text by Pastor Keenan Roberts; directed by Alex Timbers; sets by Garin Marschall; costumes by Sidney Shannon; lighting by Tyler Micoleau; makeup by David Withrow; sound and music by Bart Fasbender; dramaturgy by Alexis Soloski; music director, Gabriel Kahane; production stage manager, Alaina Taylor; stage managers, Molly Eustis and Erin Koster; produced by Aaron Lemon-Strauss. Presented by the Arts at St. Anns, Susan Feldman, artistic director, Sallie D. Sanders, general manager; and Les Freres Corbusier, Mr. Timbers, artistic director, Mr. Lemon-Strauss, executive director. At the St. Anns Warehouse, 38 Water Street, at Dock Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn; (718) 254-8779. Through Oct. 29. Running time: 45 minutes.
WITH: Teddy Bergman (Jeremy), Jeff Biehl (Satan), David Flaherty (Chad), Pat Inglis (Pastor Pat), Julie Klausner (Chrissy), Julie Lake (Jan), Rob OHare (Steve), Wil Petre (Brian), Jared Reinmuth (God), Amanda Sayle (Courtney), Katie Vagnino (Jessica) and Mike Walker (Chris).