The eight Halloween shows reviewed here represent a mere fraction of the current offerings in a seasonal subgenre that’s become as ubiquitous as Nutcrackers in December. So consider this a sampler, with selections ranging from family-appropriate (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: A New Folk Musical) to more suitable for frat boys (Nightmares on Lincoln Avenue). More can be found in our listings. —Tony Adler
Anna in the Darkness 2009: The Basement The advance material on Dream Theatre’s annual Halloween show describes a “young teacher . . . barricaded . . . in the basement while the entire bloodthirsty town masses to kill her.” Zombies, right? No. The menace here is even scarier: fundamentalists. In Jeremy Menekseoglu’s production of his own play, Anna has run afoul of the Bible-thumping establishment in her little town by trying to get her EMH (educable mentally handicapped) students excited about reading. One thing’s led to another, and now she’s cowering in her cellar (and talking to us, though it’s never clear who we’re supposed to be) while her neighbors attack with bricks and sadistic psychological games. Played straight in an actual basement, with lots of believably creepy noises and sights, the production offers an hour of engrossingly human horror. I saw the excellent Anna Weiler as Anna, but two other actors perform the role, and the ending can change from night to night.
Carpenters Halloween I’ll admit I was scared there for a while. The opening sequence of this Scooty and JoJo drag comedy—which grafts the Carpenters’ pop songs onto John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic, Halloween—is played out on video monitors that are much too small for the room, and the first live sequence takes place in very dim light. I was afraid I’d be squinting the whole hour. But the rest of the performance turned out to be easy to both see and enjoy. Though limited in some ways by its barroom setting, Carpenters Halloween is a sharp goof with a solid cast and band, fine singing, and witty direction—along with deeply felt—one might even say plush—turns by Muppet-style puppets in supporting roles. Director, co-creator, and scenic designer Scott Bradley plays Laurie Strode (the Jamie Lee Curtis role in the film) with an air of sweet exasperation, and the Carpenter-meets-Carpenters conceit is so sound somebody should do a master’s thesis on it. What really creeped me out, though, was hearing “We’ve Only Just Begun” on the radio as I drove home.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow: A New Folk Musical Although smart and often charming, this Filament Theatre Company take on Washington Irving’s famous ghost story tries too hard. Tyler Beattie has interesting notions about relating the tale of Ichabod Crane to Yankee folklore in general, for instance, but his script fails to meld them in a way that makes sense. He has sophisticated folk-based musical ideas, but his score gets overburdened by them and comes across as strained. Scott Ferguson’s direction loses the narrative in stylized busyness. And the young cast seem almost too finely tuned: their physical skills, cultivated voices, and facility on everything from the accordion to the washtub bass end up conveying more about their excellent training than about the headless horseman. As a rough contemporary of Irving’s said, “Simplify, simplify.”
The Modern Prometheus In Brad Lawrence’s version of the Frankenstein story, set during the Franco-Prussian War, the famous doctor fashions his famous monster from parts of dead soldiers—and then resurrects a dead little girl for an encore. These two stunts give rise to angry mobs, debates about the ethics of playing God, and, for the doctor’s girlfriend, a rather severe case of the heebie-jeebies. Lord knows taking liberties with Mary Shelley’s novel is nothing new, but Lawrence’s additions muddy the tale and detract from the central conflict between the creator and his creation. Directors David Marcotte and Nathan Robbel further scatter focus by overloading on sound and lighting effects. The best thing about the production—Tom McGrath’s sardonic performance as Dr. Frankenstein’s wicked assistant, Henry—is woefully underused.
Nightmares on Lincoln Avenue If ever there was a Saturday-night show, this is it. Bloody, bizarre, ludicrous, obscene, and sloppy in every sense of the word, Corn Productions’ collection of 11 horror vignettes demands a full house and BYO malt beverages to work its magic. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get critical of the uneven tone (ersatz Grand Guignol to pseudo-Serling), impatient with the two-hour-plus running time, bored by the repetitious conceits (electricity goes out a lot, bad things happen to babies), and confused over whether some bits are going for chills or laughs. Still, two pieces would work any night of the week: “Doll Woman,” with P.K. Doyle as a mad collector, and the rousing, self-explanatory “Humans Is Good Victuals,” after which the stench of chocolate-syrup blood was so strong I got woozy.
Rhymes with Evil Strong acting and imaginative design redeem an implausible script in this midwest premiere from InFusion Theatre Company. Recalling such 1960s films as Bunny Lake Is Missing and The Nanny, Charles R. Traeger’s psychological mystery explores the strange world inhabited by eccentric toymaker Lathan Kane and his preteen daughter, Jenny. Reacting to the apparently imminent dissolution of his marriage, Lathan has isolated Jenny and himself in a rambling country house populated by a “family” of bizarre, handmade puppets and toys. Meanwhile, Lathan’s wife, Sara, wrestles with whether or not to divorce him. Problem is, Lathan is so obviously unhinged that it’s hard to fathom her indecisiveness, and the decisions she does make further undermine the tale’s credibility. But in Mitch Golob’s visually fascinating staging, designers Meredith Miller (puppets), Keith Pitts (set), Charles Cooper (lights), Dawn Myrie (props), and Amy Gabbert (costumes) create an environment that shifts fluidly between reality and the eerie world of Lathan’s imagination.
Salem! The Musical Playful energy can’t make up for what this Annoyance Theatre production lacks in professionalism and wit. Written and performed by a five-woman ensemble under the direction of Mark Vannier, it centers on a Bible-thumping preacher in 17th-century Salem whose independent-minded niece is accused of witchcraft because of her insistence on doing things like thinking, reading, and treating slaves as people. The cast revel in over-the-top caricatures, and pianist Dan Wessels’s score is a competent pastiche of standard musical-theater songwriting. But aside from driving home the fact that colonial Massachusetts oppressed women, the show doesn’t have much of a point. Certainly, it misses the opportunity to draw satiric analogies between the Puritan past and today’s paranoid politics.
Scared Stiff Developed through what the program calls “the magic of improvisation,” this Chemically Imbalanced Comedy show concerns a closeted gay teenager in 1980s Britain—the son of a professional ghost hunter—who finds himself falling for a ghost. Instead of mining the premise for emotional truth and comedic potential (how does a flesh-and-blood human make love to a specter?), director Lina Bunte’s ensemble get bogged down in unconvincing plot complications. The show, which is partly improvised onstage, was marred by sloppy timing and intrusive tech cues the night I attended. The only solid laughs came from watching the actors try not to laugh at their own jokes.