Stage Frights

As Soul Brother No. 1 might say of October, "It's a ghoul's, ghoul's, ghoul's, ghoul's world."
You know what I'm talking about. Once we pass beyond the ninth month, the land is overrun with ghosties and beasties and things that go bump in the night. Jack-o'-lanterns leer from every porch. Vampires and witches glower from every ad and store display. The land is swathed in orange and black, and faster than you can say "Vlad the Impaler," all around us -- in moviehouses, groceries, bookstores, on TV -- hobgoblins, demons, Great Pumpkins, and other creatures of the night are swarming.

Time was, you could turn to the fine arts for some refuge from this supernatural onslaught. Museums, theatre companies, and orchestras were concerned with more refined pursuits than scaring the bejesus out of the hoi polloi. But increasingly, arts groups are giving themselves over to the spirit -- rather, spook -- of the season. They're finding that, as with Christmas, our appetite for seasonal entertainment is damn near insatiable. At Halloween, we crave the macabre, and we seek it in encounters with the monsters that haunt our psyches -- the Draculas and werebeasts and zombie undead -- and in stories of murder, of gruesome, bloody revenge. Perhaps these tales of evil somehow help purge ourselves of wickedness before we move onto November and a season of thanksgiving and goodwill. Or maybe they're just a way to get that cheap adrenalin rush that makes us feel so alive. Whatever the underlying purpose of these fright shows, our local arts groups are more than willing to provide them to us, as this week's "Arts Listings" prove. Eight theatre productions boast some Halloween/supernatural/horror connection, one classical musician is masquerading as the Phantom of the Opera, and a museum is hosting a parade and party for the dead (see sidebars).

With all this unearthly and frightful activity going on, a few hardy Chronicle arts writers -- Sarah Hepola, Sam Martin, Robi Polgar, and J.C. Shakespeare -- felt it necessary to brave some of these terrors and discover what lies in wait for the death-hungry spectator. (Not me; I'm too busy acting in one of them.) Warning: Beyond this point lies madmen, hellhounds, and Satanic beasts. Proceed at your own risk.-- Robert Faires

Tales of Terror
Movements Gallery
through Nov 7, Thu-Sat, 8pm

"The Premature Burial"
from Tales of Terror

The spirits dance as Halloween creeps into town; the lines between the worlds of the quick and the dead blend and blur. Darkness snickers with a sinister grin as the daylight hours grow shorter, disappearing into the shadows. The first frosty fingers of fall send shivers down our spines. What better time to breathe life into Edgar Allan Poe's masterful tales of terror? For Poe was a writer most at home in the dark; the clarity and attention to detail in his most twisted visions speak of experiences far beyond the realm to which most mortals are privy.

Dan Bonfitto and his spooky friends at Flame Failure Productions have adapted five of Poe's darkest tales for the stage. Putting Poe's complex and literary language into the spoken word on stage presents some problems for a director. If I had a pick to bone with this production, it would be that the blend between dramatic action and straight narration is often uneven; too much is told rather than shown. This is particularly evidentin the second tale, "The Premature Burial," in which five characters stand still and deliver various reports of people being interred then coming back to life. Despite the fairly static tableau, however, the weirdness of the tale itself comes through and captivates the attention.

Despite a couple of moments in which energy or focus lags, the ensemble cast performs well together, and there are moments throughout the show in which certain actors truly shine. Alvin Cantu gives a disturbingly accurate performance as the psychotic killer in "The Tell-Tale Heart." Craig Kanne once again shows that he is one of the more versatile character actors around; his portrayal of an odd spiritualist plays nicely off Jeff Shaevel's dying writer in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," and he gives a splendid rendition of "The Raven" as an Act Two intermezzo. Jennifer Hamburg has choreographed a lovely ballet piece in "The Masque of the Red Death," made even more charming by a trademark Flame Failure bloodbath. Cantu and Shaevel team up nicely in the finale, a very convincing version of "The Cask of Amontillado."

The narrow confines and primitive equipment of Movements Gallery present some technical challenges to the production, yet the high ceiling, grim ductwork, and sparse lighting lend a nice dungeon-like atmosphere to the show. Often the only lighting on the stage comes from a lantern or candelabra, and the minimal light accentuates the fright factor. The intimate proximity between audience and performers also suits the material. Overall, the show is an excellent piece of parlor entertainment and very apropos to the season.

This group has an excellent core of actors, production crew, and talented folks who work on both sides of the curtain. Their previous project, the 12-episode serial Flame Failure, gave them a certain cult status among Austin's theatre artists; they seem to be the only folks crazy enough to attempt a play a month and actually pull it off. Between the dedication and commitment of this troupe and Bonfitto's twisted imagination, I think it's fair to expect big things in the Flame Failure future. -- J. C. Shakespeare

Poe's Poetry and Prose
The Public Domain, 807 Congress
through Nov 7, Fri & Sat, 11pm;
Sun, 2pm

Though a century and a half has passed since his tragic death, Edgar Allan Poe remains one of the most evocative and fascinating writers of the horror genre. In this one-man "personal performance," Jerry Marco gives us not Poe the tortured soul but Poe the storyteller, a man whose imagination and own sad life turned out some of the most memorable and beloved short works in American literature. Dressed in a Romantic-era suit and tie, pacing the small, empty stage, Marco is our host on a journey of sorts: a journey into a realm of the fantastic, the impossible.

On the afternoon that I saw Mr. Marco's show, however, our liftoff was instantly impeded by perhaps the worst audience that I have ever been a part of. Among our intimate gathering were a crying baby (a baby!) in the front row, patrons who were sleeping, and latecomers who made their way to their seats as noisily and awkwardly as possible. Because of all this, very few of the lot were engaged in the spectacle Marco was performing for our benefit. If such behavior flagged my attention, I can't imagine what it did to our host, who opened with a version of "The Black Cat" -- a taut, surprising story of misplaced rage and aggression -- in what was frankly a rather underwhelming fashion. Because Poe's language is riddled with what my English teacher called $5 words (teacher-slang for "no one ever uses them"), keeping the audience involved without any visual cues or other assistance is a tall order. With no set, no cast, and no sound (this last, in particular, seemed a missed opportunity) on which to fall back, much of the story's suspense dissipated. But as the hour ticked away, Marco's concentration tightened and his ability to tweak a shocking punchline sharpened, so that the stories became at first engaging, then harrowing. Each of the three short stories he performed was followed by a poem, and by the time Marco reached "The Bells," he seemed completely on his toes. Using his voice to simulate the resounding bongbongbong, Marco turned this singsongy number into a thing of terror: I instantly understood how such beautiful, bass vibrato could become a jarring and unceasing note of horror, gnawing on a madman's brain. In his final story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," Marco showcased the kind of dynamic storyteller he could be: fretting over his ghastly deeds, falling to the floor with anguish. Here, I saw where Marco had intended to take us -- into the kind of mystical trance that a hypnotic storyteller can render, so that even those of us who have read the story 15 times, may even know parts by heart, will forget the ending, will startle with fright at the terrible climax.

The production was not able to acheive that kind of success. Partly because that catharsis demands a traditional dramatic arc, a chilling, ta-da! finale, which Poe usually does not grant. Instead, he spends a mere two sentences building suspense to the part where he buries an ax in his wife's brain, only to dwell with much to-do about an act of confession. What Marco does achieve, however, is a unique and loving tribute to the man's work. It is a pleasure to be reminded of the chilling stories I grew up with: of their elegance, their gross-out detail, even their perverse sense of humor. It was an experience that made me want to curl up at home and read the stories again one by one -- no crying babies allowed. -- Sarah Hepola

The Tower Massacre Musical
Atomic Cafe, Seventh & Red River
through Nov 7, Fri & Sat, 8pm

Those of us who gathered in the dark, seamy grotto of the Atomic Cafe last Friday witnessed the birth of something special; a show that is destined to stand as a psychotic bastard cousin to the Tuna family in the Austin theatrical lexicon. I confess to having mixed expectations going in to the show; I expected it to be both sick and funny, but I was delighted to find a riotous blend of rock & roll, bombast, slapstick humor, physical comedy, musical send-ups, buckets of blood, and even a Greek chorus of grackles. And setting the show in the post-apocalyptic confines of the Atomic Cafe was a stroke of genius. After all, in a club whose claim to fame is live bondage shows and ear-bleeding industrial bands, a musical about the UT Tower massacre is the paragon of good taste.

The play tells the story of Charles Whitman, Austin's most notorious mass murderer, and hats off to Shirk Workers' Onion for being the only artists since Kinky Friedman to even touch this material. The truth is that Whitman's rampage is still a dark secret in the Austin psyche -- one of the few taboos in our liberal, anything-goes community. But following in the absurdist tradition, SWO simply points out that this was a random act of senseless violence and there is no guilt or atonement necessary. While such hard-hitting satire may not be for the faint of heart, the show is pulled off with such exuberance and sheer joy that it would be very difficult to be more offended than entertained.

Jason Liebrecht returns from Los Angeles to turn in a stellar performance as Whitman; his first Rutger Hauer-like appearance brought thunderous applause from the crowd. His Whitman doesn't seem that evil, merely compelled to kill with the inevitability of a salmon returning upstream to spawn. His icy blond crewcut and psychotic energy provide a hilarious contrast to the hippy-dippy Sixties campus scene acted out by the ensemble cast.

Equally entertaining was Todd Lowe's "Cowboy Cop," a straight-faced, deadpan hero to whom stalking a heavily armed psychopath in the Clock Tower is just another day at the office. And when Lowe and his cop-partner, played by Mark Stewart, made their choreographed final approach to the upper part of the tower, the audience flat-out roared with laughter. Their country-twangin' duet on "Muster Up the Gumption" was a real show-stopper.

Director Anna Krejci gives her actors the green light to have fun with this material. There were so many wonderful improvisational moments mixed in with Chase Staggs' hilarious script that this bold and daring project came off without a hitch. From the campy musical numbers to the black-winged grackles who embody evil with their "creepy talk" -- until the bullets fly too close to home -- the show is full of delightful surprises.

A note of warning to those in the front row; wear your rain slickers. There's enough flying gore to make you feel like you're seeing Gallagher on acid. But do not miss this show. Shirk Workers' Onion has a hit on their hands, and I predict it will be much bigger than this initial short run. -- J. C. Shakespeare

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd.
through Oct 31, Thu-Sat, 8pm

On a dark moor in the wilds of Devonshire lurks a hound from hell that has a taste for the unlucky family Baskerville. Legend has it that each successive lord of Baskerville Hall is doomed to die at the maw of this ferocious beast. This is the setting for On Stage's adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock Holmes story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Michael Stuart, who directs this, his own adaptation of the tale, frames the work as a radio play: a story to be heard rather than seen, and for the most part, this strategy works. Stuart's adaptation moves quite briskly, and the bare-bones design keeps what's needed for efficient storytelling. Before the audience is still 221-B Baker Street, albeit stripped bare of the usual Victorian bric-a-brac and Holmes' gadgetry; then there is the forbidding Baskerville Hall: a grim stone room with a sense out the central window of its even more gloomy surroundings. With such a minimalistic approach, it is left for the players to evoke the chilling drama of this deadly game.

Robert Faires reprises his role as the Great Detective, his third go-round, and, as before, his portrayal of Holmes is thoughtful and gentlemanly. Additionally, Faires seems to relish Holmes' combative, impatient side, given to barbed swipes of criticism, landing smartly on his poor partner, the good Doctor Watson -- an eager puppy catching up to long-striding master Holmes. Richard Craig gives an equal dose of sensitivity and hurt pride as the hard working but not-quite-up-to-it doctor. The give and take (invariably dished out by Holmes and taken by Watson) between Faires and Craig makes for much of the evening's humor. Michael Stuart, in the role of the skulking butler, Jonathon Barrymore (who may or may not have done it), also finds an adequate mix of the sinister and comic, inevitably combining the two. Even in his most innocuous entrance, brooding Barrymore manages to surprise Baskerville Hall's various residents and visitors.

Marshall Ryan Maresca puts in a solid performance as the almost debonair, almost heroic Sir Henry Baskerville, heir to estate and curse. Brian Jepson's Dr. Mortimer is a stuffed pillow of low-key British amazement, awestruck at Holmes' uncanny deductive powers. J. Damian Gillen's John Stapleton, ever on the hunt for his elusive lepidoptera with badminton-framed net and push pins at the ready, is both geek and cunning foe. As his supposed sister, Beryl Stapleton, Margaret Hoard exudes quiet empathy toward the brave but clueless Henry.

The cast trots along the edge of melodrama, but never too far from the requisite humor that makes such a well-known story audience-friendly. Perhaps the radio show framework for this production permits so much mileage from so little activity: The actors tell the familiar story simply. One wonders, though, if the choice to return to the radio show format during the climax of the play doesn't detract from its effectiveness. The inevitable stalking, chase, and final flash of discovery are tempered by the disembodied nature of the radio, and our hound winds up rather toothless. -- Robi Polgar

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