Sunday, February 25, 2024

"Hells Canyon" by Theater Mu at Jungle Theater

The world premiere new play Hells Canyon is a revenge fantasy, in which the revenge comes almost 140 years after the crime - the murder of 34 Chinese goldminers in Oregon. The spirits of the murder victims are restless, and use a group of friends having a fun getaway at a cabin to enact their revenge. It's modern dramedy-horror with social commentary, in the vein of Get Out. Horror isn't really my thing, but this play is thrilling. It'll make you laugh, and think, and feel, and maybe jump out of your seat a little. Theater Mu's production is brilliantly cast with an incredible design that pulls off some real scares, and it's a must-see, especially if you're a fan of the horror genre (and even if you're not). It plays at the Jungle Theater* Wednesdays through Sundays until March 17. 

Even without the horror, this story has the makings of a great dramedy. Friends and band members Tommy, Doug, Claire, and Ben (the latter two are married) go for a weekend at a cabin in the woods to relax, bond, and talk about plans for the future of the band. With them is Tommy's sister Ariel, who is also Doug's ex and pregnant with twins as Claire and Ben's surrogate. To say the relationships among this group are complicated is an understatement. Everything is great and fun (at least on the surface) until secrets start to come out. Like why and where to Ariel ran away after she was implanted with Claire and Ben's embryos, the reason that Ariel and Doug broke up, and Claire and Ben's opportunity for the band. As if that's not enough, weird things start to happen. A bear (or something) keeps pounding on the door of the cabin, a bird (or something) flies into a window and is killed, and like Chekhov's gun, you know that mention of a steep cliff is going to come into play. To say more would give away the fun of watching everything unfold, but suffice it to say that the story of the Hells Canyon Massacre becomes very real for this group of friends (Ariel and Tommy are Chinese-American, and Ben is the descendent of White settlers with stories of a particularly "adventurous" ancestor). As expected in horror, not everyone makes it out alive.

West Coast-based playwright Keiko Green has written the play with natural sounding dialogue, with characters sometimes speaking over each other, or starting and stopping, or having multiple conversations at the same time. This makes it feel like a real group of friends hanging out. The plot is well constructed, and issues of infertility, identity, racism, and relationship drama are woven into the story in a way that feels organic, not preachy. #TCTheater actor Katie Bradley takes her second turn at directing here, and does a great job with this tricky script, balancing the dramady elements with the horror to present a story that works on many levels. 

the friends celebrate good news (photo by Rich Ryan)
The five-person cast, two of whom are #TCTheater newcomers, simply couldn't be better. Chicago-based Kaitlyn Cheng is the strong center as Ariel, taking her from a somewhat guarded woman who doesn't want to upset anyone, through a believable transition into a rage-filled woman intent on getting justice no matter the cost. Gregory Yang brings some much needed humor and levity as her brother Tommy, a fun-loving guy who has some rage of his own. It's always great to see Ryan Colbert, who returns to #TCTheater as Doug, the amiable friend stuck in the middle. NYC-based Matt Lytle is the one you love to hate as Ben, with some scarily impressive moments. Last but not least, #TCTheater favorite Becca Claire Hart walks the line between sympathetic and infuriating as Claire, who's riddled with anxiety and just trying to make it through life and be happy, unaware that she's taking advantage of others along the way. All five of these actors are so in the moment and always in character, and have really built a feeling of years of complicated relationships between them.

what's outside the window (Kaitlyn Cheng, photo by Rich Ryan)
You can't pull off horror onstage without great design, and this show's got it. If you didn't know this was a horror play, you'd be clued in by the sound design at moment one. An ominous soundscape builds the tension throughout the show, with a few moments to breathe in between the scares. Lighting is also crucial to the story, as we go from daytime to nighttime, and of course a full blackout when the power to the cabin goes out. Speaking of the cabin, it's so realistic I'd happily rent it for a weekend, if not for the horrible things that seem to happen there. It's all cozy rustic wood, a center kitchen and living area, with the bedrooms on either side fully visible so that you can watch people in different rooms at the same time. It feels huge and open, fully stocked with tchotchkes, supplies, and even real food and drink. Outside the windows you can see trees and leaves and nature that feels very realistic, with movement and changing light, like we're really in the woods. Characters are dressed in casual chic wear with nods to their musical interests, and character specific pajamas. All design elements work together to create this world that's a mix of realistic and supernatural, and pull off some impressive theater magic. (Sound design and composition by Katharine Horowitz, lighting design by Karin Olson, scenic design by Erik Paulson, props design by Kenji Shoemaker, and costume design by Jacourtney Mountain-Bluhm).

The themes of this play remind me a little of Redwood, also seen on the Jungle stage a few years ago, about an interracial couple whose family histories come back to haunt them. Do we carry the traumas, or the sins, of our ancestors with us? And if so, can we ever get over that in our current relationships? Things to think about as you're trying not to jump out of your seat in Hells Canyon.

*Seating is general admission, so get there early to get a good seat in the middle to back rows of the theater, towards the center if you can. If you end up more towards the front, the left side might offer better views. I was sitting in the second row on the right, and some of the effects were blocked by the couch.