at Annoyance Theatre

I tried desperately to get someone to go with me to see this double bill. Through the years I’ve taken friends to see some of my choice theater assignments–acrobatic rats, Kabuki G-string dancers, and even a guy who wrapped himself in duct tape while talking about scoring dope (I liked that one a lot; my companion’s reaction was mixed). But Manson: The Musical had no takers. You can go too far, my friends said. The whole thing sounded immoral to them. I went alone.

Manson: The Musical and Der Ragamuffin are the Wednesday-night offerings over at the Annoyance Theatre, once a glitzy drag showroom called Club Victoria, where a different program now runs practically every night: Coed Prison Sluts, That Darned Antichrist, and, of course, those original, live, and totally outlaw Brady Bunch shows.

Club Victoria’s disco ball and gawking suburban heterosexual couples are gone now, replaced on the night I saw Metraform’s shows by a rat pack of what seemed like fraternity brothers. They spent intermission picking on a heavy-metal, dressed-in-black-from-head-to-toe couple sitting in a back corner. “Dickheads,” the heavy-metal dude said in response. The frat rats laughed and laughed. The only point of agreement was the show, which both sides loved. Still, I’m not sure that anyone in the audience had ever had a real LSD trip–a featured part of the show–or actually known a hippie.

Manson: The Musical is indeed a musical: There’s live singing, dancing, and playing. There’s solo work and ensemble play. There are ballads and up-tempo tunes. There are whole scenes carried by music. I’ve been singing the catchy opening number, “Summer of ’69” (like all the original music in the show, by Laura Wasserman), since I first heard it.

And the play is indeed the Charles Manson story, complete with his strange interactions with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Monkees. The Manson story is already so weird that it’s practically impossible to satirize; it’s the musical format that makes the satire work. Playwright-director Tom Booker, who shows up now and then in the show as a rock-star interviewer, hasn’t added or exaggerated anything: Every little thing you see and hear is true. Which, surprisingly enough, keeps the laughs coming. And which, perhaps not so surprisingly, makes it damned uncomfortable laughter at times.

The story is familiar enough: Manson, aspiring singer-songwriter and antichrist, sets up his very own dysfunctional family with a bunch of runaway girls at the deserted Spahn Ranch. Clutzy Tex Watson, the only other male, is a eunuch of sorts who serves as Manson’s repairman and henchman. Together they eat rotting vegetables, have a lot of sex, praise Manson’s every deranged word, and, one day, out of sheer boredom, go off to kill Sharon Tate and her friends.

Mercifully, hefty Ben Zook, who plays Manson in an obviously false beard, looks nothing like the real killer–which serves as a reminder that while Manson: The Musical is faithful to the facts, it’s still theater, not real life. The Tate murder is fully played out, but with enough outlandishness (and not a drop of blood) to make it all pretty cartoonish.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the rendering of the LaBianca murders. Although still bloodless, and with the addition of a pretty funny imagined argument between the couple–who don’t realize they’re about to be butchered until Watson strikes the first blow–this relentless, merciless scene may well go too far for some people. It was certainly disconcerting, especially right there in the middle of so much jocularity.

Ultimately, as in real life, the characters in Manson: The Musical display zero remorse. The show too is remorseless–if not about the deeds committed by its characters, about its exploitation of them. As entertaining as it often is, the show is, if not immoral as my friends predicted, amoral.

Preceding Manson: The Musical is the very strange Der Ragamuffin, which features a live chicken pecking away in the corner. The Ragamuffin, who is married to a kidney (I’m not kidding), is a “piss dancer,” whose job it is to help soldiers relieve themselves after a battle. One day he kidnaps a couple of kids who do “shtick.” He feeds them and hints at possible connections for them in televisionland. But by the time the kids figure the situation out, they have been turned into the Ragamuffin and his kidney wife.

There’s a point in the play when the Ragamuffin feeds the kids a barbecued chicken, which they savagely devour. Later, he gives the chicken carcass to the live chicken, who tears it apart as she eats. The frat rats and the heavy-metal pair liked this one a lot.