Friday, October 29, 2021

Twin Cities Horror Festival 2021 at the Crane Theater

I don't love horror, and I'm not really into Halloween (except for the candy). But I do love the ingenious #TCTheater community that creates spooky, creepy, scary works of theater for the annual Twin Cities Horror Festival. After last year's virtual festival, they're returning to in-person shows this year (on a limited capacity, with a virtual portion as well) for their tenth season. I spend last night at the Crane Theater being scared, wowed, entertained, and moved by this year's creations. I saw three of the five live shows, and I previously saw one of them at this year's Minnesota Fringe Festival (I like to think of TCHF as a genre-specific mini-Fringe). The festival runs this weekend only, with weekend passes as well as individual show tickets available (click here for details).

Splinter by Dangerous Productions
If there's a blood-stained tarp under the performance area, you might be at a Dangerous Productions show. One guarantee with their work is that there will be blood, and scares aplenty. Splinter does not disappoint. A forensic psychologist (Liz Carey-Linskey) has invented a new method to help witnesses remember the crime that they witnessed, which involves stabbing them in the back of the head with a pin. She's trying it out on "Marguerite" (Laura "Baller" Mahler) and "Bruce" (Jay Kistler), not their real names because the procedure initially erases their memory. The two were found at a cabin with a murdered man, and the psychologist is trying to get them to remember what happened. She takes them to the cabin, with help from her son (Chris Rowe, also other characters), and begins the procedure, which includes psychological tests as well as recording them and simultaneously playing the video on a TV screen. Splinter could refer to the various realities depicted, or the characters' psyches, because things get real trippy, real fast as the memories come back in a very real way. To say anymore would spoil the thrill of shock and surprise, made scarier by the copious and realistic blood effects. Playwright Garrett Vollmer and director Tyler Olsen-Highness, along with the entire production team, have created a terrifying world of horror with intricately choreographed and detailed storytelling. I was glad I saw this one first, rather than have it be the last thing in my mind as I went out into the cold, dark, rainy night.

Blood Nocturne by The Winding Sheet Outfit
In the past several years, this troupe has become one of my favorite Fringe companies for the way they take some relatively obscure (and sometimes creepy) historical figure and tell their story in a clever, well-researched, and creative way, often giving us a peek behind the scenes of their process. They premiered this piece at the 2018 Minnesota Fringe Festival, and I liked this version just as much, if not more, than three years ago, when I wrote: "I had never heard of Erzsébet Báthory, a Hungarian countess accused of murdering dozens (or even hundreds) of young women and girls in the early 17th Century, but a quick read of her Wikepedia page reveals a horrifying tale of torture, mutilation, and murder. The Winding Sheet Outfit tells us Erzsébet's story from her point of view, as a powerful woman manipulated and falsely accused, although perhaps not totally innocent. The ensemble tells the story in a non-linear fashion, with charming and creepy original music. They often break the fourth wall, calling each other by their actual name when someone goes too far or suggests something not in line with the story they're telling. This device puts the audience at ease and reminds us it's just one interpretation of a story that can never fully be known. But it's a story that has much to tell us about gender, power, justice, and violence. Emily Dussault gives a strong and empathetic performance as Erzsébet, while the rest of the talented ensemble (Amber Bjork, Boo Segersin, Derek Lee Miller, Joshua Swantz, and Kayla Dvorak) play her helpers, friends, enemies, and alleged victims. Dressed in period clothing and playing period instruments, they work well together as an ensemble, using movement, music, and physical theater to create the world of Erzsébet against the perfect background of the Southern Theater. After seeing the play I'm not sure what to think about Erzsébet, but I know the situation is a little more nuanced and complex than what history usually describes."

Blackout in a Blackout by Blackout Improv
A last-minute replacement, Blackout Improv can always be counted on to bring the funny in a smart and relevant way. Unlike their regular shows at Huge Theater and elsewhere, this show does not include a round-table discussion on current issues, often dealing with being Black in America. Rather it's set in, yes, a blackout. A group of friends (a rotating cast from the ensemble) are hanging out when the power goes out, leaving them without phones or technology, only flashlights to see by (which allows for some cool and silly lighting effects). Things get real, discussions get deep, with some unexpected surprises. They also break out of this over-arching improvised story to do a few improv scenes on other topics, which the night I attended included some fun and awkward improvised singing and dancing. But this is improv, so it's a new show every night, based on audience suggestions.

Channel by Dogwatch Productions
I didn't see this show as part of TCHF, but I saw it as part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival in August, and it was my favorite indoor show of the festival. Here's what I wrote: "The show is part very real and grounded character study, and part ghost story achieved by lighting and sound effects. The program notes that the show was "conceptualized by [director] Larissa Netterlund and created collaboratively with the cast and crew." It's almost a solo show, with Elizabeth Efteland playing the lighting designer, and creating such a real and fully formed character as she goes about her work, often in silence. But not entirely solo, because stage manager Kate Bender makes a brief appearance and is very busy behind the scenes, and the sound and lighting effects play a huge role in the show (technical direction and design by Shannon Elliot). This is essentially a site-specific piece; it takes place in a theater very like the Crane (to which, BTW, it's so wonderful to return after nearly two years). So the lighting designer is really in the space, running up and down stairs, going through doors and coming back in others; it almost feels like we're just eavesdropping on what's really happening. Through a series of voice mails and video chats, we learn that the character lives with her mother, who seems to be suffering from some kind of dementia-related illness, which limits her time at work. Particularly telling are when she records a message that gets a little too vulnerable, deletes it, and records a milder version. Things get weird when the voice mails begin to play over the sound system in a creepy loopy/echo-y kind of way, asking: Why are you here? What do you need? Are you alone?"

Creepy Boys
by The Creepy Boys
I knew there was no way this morning person could stay awake for the 10:30pm show on opening night of TCHF, so sadly I missed this show that has played at fringe festivals around the world. Per the website, the show is: "A queer fantasy, a chaotic comedy romp, an after hours ride on that county fair roller coaster you swore burned down last summer, Creepy Boys combines clown, drag, puppetry, and showtunes, to create a performance that is “fabulously unexpected” (Orlando Sentinel). Creepy Boys invites you to ask, can you ever really know yourself? Can you ever really prepare for the world? Are you ever in control of who you become?"