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A CurtainUp Review
Les Freres Corbusier is no stranger to ideological contretemps. Its production of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant was a flashpoint for followers of L. Ron Hubbard. Somehow, the Northeast communications officer for the Cult of Theta wandered into their unmarked rehearsals and in due course threatened legal action. Their jujitsu, a quick leak to the mainstream press, bought the production mondo publicity. This time around, however, the theater company has adopted a more diplomatic tact. When artistic director Aaron Lemon-Strauss caught an L.A. production of a Hell House he was intrigued, but at the same time felt that planting a tongue-firmly-in-cheek wasn't the most effective critical strategy. Lemon-Strauss contacted Pastor Roberts directly, and over time earned his trust that his Hell House would unfold without irony. Apparently, Pastor Roberts came for the last dress rehearsal and stayed for the first preview. Was he disgusted at the crowd of Dumbo hipsters who sniggered throughout the show? Hardly. From his point of view, he could not ask for a better crowd. In his notes to the theater company, the Times reported that he urged "more intensity."
Coverage in a raft of periodicals, from the Observer to Time Out, and yes, the Times, have all made much ado how radical it is, lifting Hell House from its Bible Belt origins and touching down in Dumbo. That's a careless reading. The seat of Robert's influence has been Denver, the Mile High City of 500,000 people that is historically a progressive, Democratic stronghold. Hell, it even has a Jewish community of 100,000 peppered across its Metropolitan area. So Roberts hasn't exactly been preaching to the inbred offspring of Jessie Helms. Amid (or subverting?) this cosmopolitanism, more than 50,000 folks have attended the Denver Hell House since 1995. From this perspective, New York City seems less a bridge too far.
St. Ann's Warehouse, that rectory of High Art, has been transformed for the production. Divided across 14,000 square feet are now eight rooms separated by blackout curtains. Sinners (10 tours a night, folks) were led about by one of three "demon tour guides," oozing charm and damnation. We move through a rave where virginal Jessica is slipped Ecstacy and then gang-raped. Then it's a hop and a skip to her bedroom of reckoning. The text is telling. Says our demon to our newly christened Slut, "And did you ever think maybe it's your own fault? Remember what Daddy used to do to you when you were a little girl?" My knee-jerk (liberal?) reflex is to smile at the hokiness of the mis en scene, but – Whoa! – this rhetoric has been ingrained in tens of thousands of House-goers for decades. It demands that we take heed.
From there we're on the scene of a botched abortion with our guide announcing, "You're about to witness the product of young love!" As the team operates, a defiled cheerleader decides too late to save her baby. There's blood galore. For my money, for simplicity and shock nothing beats the next scene: We're IN the womb watching a fetus struggle and just then a giant forceps reaches within and, in a Roger Corman moment, extricates the fetus.
Pretty much the entire journey has immediate shock/laugh value, but over the next few days, I find myself disturbed. Not merely because of the timeliness of each scene (the Columbinesque school shooting particularly resonates due to recent events) but because I realize first-hand what the playbook of the Right is, and it's disarming. There's a scene at a hipster coffee bar – think The Read Cafè on Bedford in Williamsburg – where a yarmulke-sporting twentysomething jokes to his Friendsters about mocking religion. Before they can put plan to paper, they are dragged away by demons. Intones our tour guide: "… [T]here's nothing cool – in the bowels of Hell! Murders, thieves, rapists, and non-believers, all are equal in the eyes of God…" Warning: This (im)moral equivalence may cause nightmares.
I used to be an absolutist where free speech is concerned. I've recently arrived at an evolved position, where the terms of discourse must be civil to enable an exchange of ideas, no matter how disparate. The other day, listening to NPR's Fresh Air, I was struck by Terry Gross' back to back interviews with a leader of the ex-gay movement (the group that believes that homosexuality can be cured through "reparative therapy") and an ex-ex-gay. Gross didn't play gotcha, or that other journalistic mainstay, "I know better than you." I admired a restraint that enabled her to query her subjects with utter deference. I didn't get The Passion of Christ, the movie, but I'm closer to an understanding of His passion thanks to the Les Freres production of this Hell House. If sincerity's not hot, perhaps it should be.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide