The Horror, The Horror...


Do you think anyone has yet mashed up Brando's famous delivery in Apocalypse Now with shots of men in traditional Jewish garb dancing traditional Jewish dances? If they haven't, the Internet is a failed experiment.

Sunday last I participated in a staged reading of Friend Nat's latest playscript: Pierce, or, A Ghost of the Union. The story is a ghost one, surrounding the presidency of Franklin Pierce. Nat excels at creating these unlikely mash-ups of supernatural tropes and (supposedly) more lofty and academic material; he's a smart guy who loves Japanese horror films and the work of Stephen King, and his previous plays have included Any Day Now (kitchen-sink drama and zombies) and The Reckoning of Kit & Little Boots (classical tragedy and time-bending magical [sur]reality). So as unlikely as the combination may seem, it really rather works in the hands of someone who can encompass all the contributing factors, such as Nat.

It reminds me of Friend Geoff, who is lightly obsessed with the hope that a stage play can be genuinely terrifying, and not just existentially, but immediately as well. I've seen two shows that scared me rather well: one was The Pillowman, the other a smaller-scale production but awfully well done from Friend Avi's group, Creative Mechanics: Fall of the House of Usher. Pillowman served up a series of shocks, in effect, that cumulatively broke my sense of trust in the narrative, whereas Usher was all-around creepy, seeping into me throughout by way of some incredibly weird and committed performances. Pierce is fascinating to me because it seems to adhere so directly to the rhythm of a horror movie, the way such movies often function like roller-coasters, undulating and setting you up over and over again for bigger and bigger drops. This is a far more delicate feat in the theatre than on the screen, though. It takes pitch-perfect balance. It's almost like comedy in its daring: Nowhere to hide or obfuscate your intentions -- you are there, and everyone knows this, to make people laugh. Or in this case, shudder with fear.

Theatre used to do this, you know. Theatre used to do it all, even with equivalents to the glorious orangey fireballs and computer-rendered creatures. It did it all, because it had to. It was all we had, and then just as now we liked being scared, made sad, laughing, and all the good junk in between. Somewhere up the line there started to come these other vicarious, verisimilitudinous experiences, and somewhere not too far beyond that theatre started to place a priority on distinguishing itself. By and large, I think this was good for theatre; I love exploration and a pursuit of specificity, and one of my favorite admonishments I received in college was to, damn it, find what theatre can do that no other medium can. That has served me well, and I'm still making discoveries in that vein. However, it irks me somewhat when specificity leans its way into limitation, and anyway movies do not have exclusive domain over anything having to do with entertainment, with the possible exception of having made and spent astronomical figures on it.

So: Fear. It makes for some pretty powerful catharsis. That's what all the scary movies are about, after all -- inciting some kind of visceral, emotional response from us that we somehow find comfort in (or at least afterward). As with any play or movie, the catharsis needs a good story on which to hang its hat, even if it's a very simple one (such as, mildly troubled family stays in hotel, gets stranded and violently disintegrates) and Pierce achieves that with a variety of contextual details such as slavery and impending secession, government and politics, and the strange evolution of the idea of "the media." Perhaps most satisfying, absolutely every character is changed by the events that unfold. In that sense, horror could be called a curious combination of comedy and tragedy (perhaps the eleven-fingered love child). It progresses with a comic rhythm of set-ups and deliveries, yet results in a tragic change, a horrible finality.

Then again, my favorite horror movies have that coda in which it is implied that the horror, the undeniable lack of control, is inescapable and cyclical and bound to repeat itself. Human behavior, at its most horrible. Now who wouldn't cast politicians in such a story?
 
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