In the best way, Portland has a sudden case of stage fright.
Horror plays and musicals are popping up in theaters with the surprising frequency of brain-hungry zombie hordes in "The Walking Dead," and not always around Halloween.
Consider the season so far: Portland Center Stage opened with "Little Shop of Horrors." "Jekyll & Hyde" kicked off Stumptown Stages' year. Shaking the Tree Theatre gave us "Head. Hands. Feet"; Bag & Baggage, "The Drowning Girls." At Funhouse Lounge, the cast danced the Time Warp in "The Rocky Horror Show." Oregon Children's Theatre premiered "Goosebumps the Musical: Phantom of the Auditorium," an adaptation of the kid-lit horror books. In January, Matthew B. Zrebski's Appalachian monster tale, "Carnivora," premiered at Theatre Vertigo.
Coming up? The creature-feature "Feathers and Teeth" begins previews at Artists Repertory Theatre Tuesday, March 7. "The Toxic Avenger Musical," an adaptation of the cult horror flick, closes Stumptown's year on April 27. And Broadway Rose Theatre Company kicks off summer with "The Addams Family" musical on June 29.
Next season, we'll see three incarnations of the king of horror musicals, "Phantom of the Opera." In addition to Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 blockbuster and its recent sequel (both coming from Broadway in Portland) Stumptown is producing "Phantom," the lesser-known 1991 musical version by Maury Yeston, the composer of "Nine."
Why the sudden shift to spooky shows?
"Probably many of us were thinking, 'We have a horror play. Nobody ever does horror plays.' And now we have a whole gang of them," says Luan Schooler, director of new play development and dramaturgy at Artists Repertory Theatre.
"What's cool is the many different ways that horror shows up," says Schooler. "As far as such a gargantuan genre, the only thing that ties it together is that it wants to scare you."
She's right. Horror fans occupy a big tent with an open door. Whether you prefer romantic horror, campy sci-fi, or gory over-the-top spoofs with "Splatter Zone" seating, there's something to sink your teeth into.
Stumptown Stages has produced four horror musicals in the past two seasons.
"I think there's a real niche market for those types of shows," says Kirk Mouser, the company's executive artistic director, who's a lifelong fan of horror movies.
Something else Mouser has discovered about the genre: "It also brings in a younger clientele, a younger patron base."
Beyond our city, monsters, ghosts and witches are having a much bigger moment. On the big screen, horror films are bigger than ever. Buzzy small-screen shows include "Grimm," "American Horror Story" and "The Walking Dead," which pulls in around 10 million viewers each week.
On Broadway, Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf led the stage adaptation of Stephen King's "Misery" last season. The highly praised National Theatre of Scotland adaptation of the vampire novel "Let the Right One In" jumped to New York recently.
Crafting "Feathers and Teeth" took playwright Charise Castro Smith from squeamish to appreciative of the horror genre. Smith intended to write a revenge tragedy and ended up with what a friend terms a "thrilledy" that mixes comedy, stepfamily dynamics and frightening, bloodthirsty little creatures. Now she's a producer and writer for the Fox series "The Exorcist."
Smith is also a fan of the British sci-fi horror series "Black Mirror."
"There's a character who's talking about a horror video game and saying that when we encounter a horror story or movie or play, we can engage with it but then, at the end, we win. We have gone through it but the terror doesn't win," Smith says. "Maybe there is something to the rush of being able to process and deal with this fear in a safer kind of way."
Before this season, horror plays were intermittent blips or bursts on Portland stages. Wade McCollum played the fang-toothed lead in "Bat Boy: The Musical" in 2003 for Portland Center Stage. The company didn't return to horror until 2007 with Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," a gruesome whodunit in which the main suspect writes children's horror stories. In 2011, Broadway Rose Theatre Company took a musical stab at the Jack the Ripper legend. Portland Opera gave us a killer "Sweeney Todd" last spring.
The irregularity in programming may arise from the logistical beastliness of, say, perfecting tricky stage effects and building giant working monsters.
When Stumptown Stages decided to put on the musical adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie" last season, Mouser and his team faced recreating one of the most iconic scenes in modern horror: Dropping a bucket of pig's blood onto the lead character.
"The Brunish (Theatre) creates lots of restrictions on you because we're in such an intimate space," says Mouser. "It also creates the opportunity, if you have the right creative team, to say, 'How can we pull off the effect so it's not campy and it doesn't get people to laugh?' "
A Seattle theater company that produced "Carrie" a few years back tried it the old-fashioned way. "They used stage blood in a bucket, and when they poured it, nine times out of ten (the actress) would miss the mark where the blood would hit the stage. And the blood would completely miss her," Mouser says. "It was one of those serious moments that the audience just laughed at."
Stumptown used a wily combination of projection, lighting and quickly changing actress Malia Davis into a bloody costume.
"I think it was the right choice," says Mouser. "I would have loved to have just dumped buckets of blood on her, but having seen what had happened in Seattle -- and here's a company with a 10-million-dollar seasonal budget -- we're not going to compete with that. And they couldn't quite get it right."
The question is: How far can Portland-area companies push past camp and romantic horror into true terror -- those intensely uncomfortable works that could scare off subscribers?
Nicole Lane, director of communications and engagement for Artists Repertory Theatre, says "Feathers and Teeth" is the bloodiest thing the company has done since 2011's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," for which it sent out warnings that the play would be bloody and that body parts would be sawed in half.
A few years earlier, Portland Center Stage sent a statement warning its subscribers of the disturbing violence in McDonagh's "The Pillowman." (He also wrote "The Lieutenant of Inishmore.")
Portland theatergoer Alena Conte, who saw "The Pillowman" as a Portland State University student studying art appreciation, says, "To be frank, I didn't think it was that violent to warrant any kind of notice."
"I thought it was done tastefully and without dumbing down scenes for the audience. In fact, just discussing this reminds me that of all the shows I have seen at Portland Center Stage, it's still one of my favorites," she says. "It's because of that experience that I decided to become a (Portland Center Stage) member."
The willingness of producers, playwrights and younger audiences to gamble on a genre often seen as kitschy or exploitative could mean more horror ahead.
Mouser is eyeing a couple of musicals about cannibalism. Schooler says that while Artists Rep isn't specifically looking for horror works, "Feathers and Teeth" has been an eye-opener for her.
"I think the genre as a whole is not very well understood," says Schooler. "When I started looking into it I had many of these biases, too. But I think once you start looking into it, and seeing how many representations of horror there are, then it's a lot more interesting."
--Lee Williams, for The Oregonian/OregonLive
"Feathers and Teeth"
When: Various times and dates, March 7-April 2.
Where: Artists Repertory Theatre, Morrison Stage, 1515 S.W. Morrison St.
Tickets: $25-$50, with a "pay what you can" performance Tuesday, March 7; artistsrep.org or 503-241-1278.
"The Toxic Avenger Musical"
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, April 27-May 14.
Where: Brunish Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway.
Tickets: $25-$40; stumptownstages.org or 800-273-1530 .
"The Addams Family"
When: Various times and dates, June 29-July 23.
Where: Deb Fennell Auditorium at Tigard High School, 9000 S.W. Durham Rd.
Tickets: $21-$46, broadwayrose.org or 503-620-5262.
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