Alisa Harris loves Halloween, now that she has TheatreNOW, Wilmington’s premier dinner theatre. Essentially, Harris gets to throw a month-long Halloween party for the public. This year she’s got a double-header on the bill: the debut of Chase Harrison’s “TheaTerror” and a late-night ghoulish cabaret show by Scott Keys and Rob Hartmann, “Macabaret.”
“TheaTerror” follows the fiendish and troubling exploits of a repertory theatre company trying to mount a production of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” “The Scottish Play,” as it is known in theatre circles, is notoriously cursed, and many actors and technicians do not say the name of the show in a theatre for a variety of superstitious reasons. A play about a variety of needless deaths in the name of ambition seems the perfect framework for a horror show set in a theater, doesn’t it?
Heather Costello plays Danielle, the ingénue who is sleeping with the producer, Simon (Rick Forrester). She needs a few hours of personal mental preparation on the stage before they begin rehearsal. She is young, pretty and angry—but that alone is not enough to invoke the great demoness of “Lady M,” a woman of unflagging ambition and terrifying depths. She knows it, which is part of why she needs the time to prepare; however, a theater is a haunted place. Dannielle becomes the first victim of an angry killer who disposes of her body and leaves the production without a leading lady a week before opening. Simon and the director, Donna (Nicole P. Horton), decide to promote Charlie (Jessica Farmer) from Lady MacDuff to the leading role. For Donna it is an act of desperation; for Forrester’s Simon it provides a pathway to probably getting Charlie into bed. With Harvey Weinstein in the news lately, Forrester’s Simon is a little too close to home—which is a compliment to him as a performer. He is power-hungry, selfish and pleased with his own ability to play God with people’s lives, all for his own amusement. He also has the charisma to get away with it.
Farmer is one of Harrison’s muses; he loves to write for her, and it shows. When Donna attempts to discuss the possible change in casting with Charlie, she gets completely derailed by Charlie’s excited restaging of Lady MacDuff’s big scene. It is passion and excitement that cannot, and will not, be denied or silenced. Having been the real-life recipient of exactly this scenario with Harrison as Charlie and myself as Donna, it seems strikingly accurate: Horton couldn’t get a word in edgewise—even to deliver good news and Farmer’s excitement was too beautiful to crush with something as simple as making it a two-person conversation instead of a monologue.
Dramatic tension is heightened at what the audience suspects will unfold. Horton does get to accept the promotion and manages to find even more giddiness to express her delight (where those reserves of energy reside is a mystery). Now, she still has to face trials of her first rehearsal with Kenny Carpenter (Jay Zadeh), the bullying menace playing the Thane of Cawdor. He seems to be completely immune to her charms, which for Farmer are considerable and has earned her not only Simon’s attention but also that of the technical director, Renee (Melissa Randall).
Randall’s much put-upon, displeased and irritated TD is spot-on. Techies, by and large, dwell in a land of much put-upon displeasure with everything, in spite of getting to make magic every day. But Randall does get to dredge up the secret that it is a self-defense move because this wonderful, crazy theatre thing is the real love of her life—beyond all else.
Though she and Zadeh are convincing in their mutual love/hate of each other and all things theatrical, the real terror comes form Erin Hunter as the much-feared, much-dreaded Lin Palmer, who is making her not-quite-so triumphant return to the scene of her downfall. By this point the corpse count has started to mount—and then into the scene walks the wronged woman just released from the psychiatric ward! Hunter genuinely scared me. Really. Her range as an actress is vast, though because she is so pretty she frequently gets cast in sympathetic or comedic roles. But, wow—she can pull out terrifying psycho when she wants to.
I really needed Chef Denise Gordon’s meal to ground me during the show. It is funny, fun and entertaining but genuinely alarming in places. Harrison penned and directed an entertaining piece that has a truly surprising and compelling plot. Gordon’s food heightens the sensory overload.
The first course of the evening is a pumpkin, spinach and cheese stromboli with fried olives on the side. I think I could have eaten an entire jar of the fried olives alone. The entree of butternut squash Alfredo might be ultimate luxury/comfort food. The handmade butternut squash and pumpkin noodles come with portobello mushroom “jerky,” showcasing all the flavor of portobello combined with a stronger texture in pumpkin Alfredo sauce. I would eat it by the pot-full if it were socially acceptable. Seriously. Personally, I also really love forbidden rice, which Gordon pairs with charred veggies to make a tangy but substantial veggie dish to dream about.
Besides dinner and “TheaTerror,” TheatreNOW is also offering a late-night cabaret show, themed around Halloween. Audiences can buy tickets for one or both. Gordon does have a “pub fare” menu available, too, for those late-night snackers. TheaterNOW, by definition, is really the perfect space for cabaret: tables, full bar, kitchen … it’s got everything ready to turn into a nightclub event.
“Macabaret” by Scott Keys and Rob Hartmann is part Kander and Ebb, part Brecht and Weitl, and part Tim Burton. And it is all fun! The conceit of the show is all the characters in the cabaret act are some sort of foul, undead creature or ghost, and all the humor revolves around puns related to the spooky, supernatural and horror-themed world of Halloween. But it utilizes the frame work of a traditional cabaret evening (with a few nods to the play “Cabaret,” thrown in for good measure). The emcee for the evening, Juan Fernandez, and the assembled company of the undead performers consist of Jordan Davis, Michael Lauricella, Sydney Smith Martin, Bianca Shaw, and Elisa Eklof Smith. The cast is accompanied on the piano by the Bride of Frankenstienway (Linda Carlisle Markas) and on the drums are Ziggy Stardust to Dust (JJ Street). Director Cathy Street’s choice to use live music is inspired. The interaction between the musicians and performers onstage is half the fun of the show.
“Dead End Job,” for example, is a classic Vaudeville bit with Michael Lauricella and Juan Fernandez rendering bad jokes, singing and dancing based around death humor, complete with straw boaters and jazz hands. Bianca Shaw’s rendition of “Beware the Understudy” is awesome, underscoring her point that she is not only ready for the big role but prepared to do anything—anything—to play it. With the beautiful, sultry voice of a torch singer, she really hypnotizes.
For a bit of uncontrollable laughter, the “Going Green” hippie folk song duet by Sydney Smith Martin and Elisa Eklof Smith is a hoot. They croon about trying to impress their politically committed, ecologist vegan boyfriends with a new compost. Shock and humor aside, it contains witty writing and the two sell the parody characters.
Jordan Davis sings an ode to unrequited love in “Ghost of a Chance,” about a sassy, beautiful blonde. Interspersing are a variety of rib-tickling pieces, including “RIP,” in which Lauricella recounts the sad demise of his wife (Smith) with a host of bizarre back-up singers to a classic cowboy tune. Far and away, the solo that goes beyond “selling it” is Martin’s “Victoria’s Secret,” all about possession. Martin has a gift for comedy that is undeniable, possibly even makes a case for commitment for criminal insanity. But Lauricella’s “Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde”—about a demented doctor who experiments with a serum of nuns, conjoined twins and go-go dancers is really like all of “Rocky Horror” rolled into one song. It’s moments like that which most performers dream of.
The funeral home that serves as a sort of suggested backdrop for it all seems to be tended by the old couple from “American Gothic” (John and Jill Schulte), who have their own story arc going with their relationship. I am a sucker for a well-told tale, and John Schulte’s “The Boy Who Cried Werewolf” is exactly that. In his deep, hypnotic growl, I couldn’t help but attend to every word.
I have to agree with Harris: At a certain point adults start looking for different entertainment come Halloween. Truly TheatreNOW has assembled two great options for a fun-filled fright night with a honey or group of friends. Both pieces are clever and filled with performers who clearly enjoy the dark humor of the evening. After a long week, it is a treat—and one worth savoring.