nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
October 8, 2006
Growing up, the Devil was a very real presence in my life. As a member of an Irish Catholic family, the antidote to the lures of Satan was an increased attention to the devotional exercises prescribed by the Holy Mother Church for the spiritual toning of the soul—rosaries recited, Stations of the Cross transversed, sins dutifully reported to the priest every Saturday afternoon. However, even all of these couldn't guarantee that a demon wouldn't try to snatch your soul, and my father took sadistic glee in recounting to my siblings and me the more frightening details of "real-life" exorcisms witnessed (or at least heard about) by the Jesuit priests with whom he attended Catholic social clubs. And so at an embarrassingly advanced age I came to the conclusion that the notion of "hell" was theologically absurd and a colossal waste of cosmic energy on the Creator's part. I thought I was done with the whole nonsensical thing.
Until Les Freres Corbusier staged a Hell House at St. Ann's Warehouse.
For those of you who aren't familiar with this particular manifestation of the ongoing psychotic breakdown in American culture, hell houses are the Christian Right's strategy for infusing the satanic, paganistic ritual of Halloween with a reminder that the One True God is a wrathful, righteous Deity. Much like Christian rockers who appropriate a goth look while howling about the Blood of the Lamb, hell houses take the gory, boo-gotcha tropes of traditional frat-boy haunted houses and use them to spin simplistic morality tales of sin and lost opportunities for redemption. As the audience is led by a demon guide through a serious of tableaux dramatizing a drug-fueled rape at a rave (and the victim's subsequent suicide), an abortion, a Columbine-like school shooting, a gay marriage (and one of the groom's almost instantaneous death from AIDS), a Teri Schiavo–like resuscitation, and a teenage girl simultaneously losing her virginity and contracting HIV, the intention is that attendees will be frightened into recommitting their lives to Jesus.
The ne plus ultra of hell houses is the one first created and trademarked by Keenan Roberts, a suburban Denver youth minister, in 1992. Les Freres purchased Pastor Roberts's Hell House Outreach™ Manual and became the first group, theatrical or religious, to present a hell house in the New York metropolitan area. With the exception of one interpolated bit of self-reflexivity (which we'll get to) and the addition of Teri Schiavo to the AIDS death scene, the company performs the script pretty much as published in the kit.
Treated as a piece of found text, Hell House is pure genius, functioning on multiple levels simultaneously—audience provocation (one women in our group fainted after the abortion scene; rumors subsequently flew throughout the group that two other women were so offended by the AIDS death sequence that they left the tour); a peak into pre-Renaissance church dramaturgy (complete with a pilgrim's progress from station to station); ironic spectacle (perhaps not since the hallowed Showgirls has such an unadulturated artifact of Sontag-esque camp been fashioned, as evidenced by such choice lines as, "She's out. Let's rape her."); and exposé of the sexual hysteria, illogic, and stupefying cruelty of far-right evangelical Christianity (the majority of characters we witness being "punished" are women or gay men; logic would dictate that allowing gays to marry would probably lead to a decrease in the spread of AIDS; and the delight Roberts apparently took in concocting various gruesome deaths for his characters is made explicit in the gloating narration provided by our demon guide).
One can't help but wonder how this all plays out among its intended audience. Do the kids in Waco and Colorado Springs treat this as just another All Hallows goof or do they undergo the profound spiritual experience that Pastor Roberts promises? Do they find the Hall of Horrors as affecting or the room where you finally meet Jesus as dull as I did? And just how truly scary is it to find yourself singing along and swaying to the Christian rock band that greets visitors at the end of the tour? Certainly the majority of the audience on my tour was determined to turn the whole thing into a born-again Rocky Horror, shouting out "whore" and "slut" to the rape victim and abortion patient as we left their rooms and cracking wise to the pastor as he thanked us for opening our hearts to The Lord. Are those kids making the same jokes or does this, in fact, scare the bejesus into them? Or perhaps, thinking back to my own confused adolescence in a religion-obsessed household, it's probably a little bit of both—skeptical of the simple-mindedness on display, but not quite ready to make the existential leap of banishing the Devil to the realm of pure fiction.
What is for certain is that they're spared the Café Hell scene Les Freres added for the Brooklyn production. As hipsters sit sipping their lattes and make fun of religion, the hell that is postmodern theatre's hall of mirrors descends to trap the audience in an infinite illusional space of self-reflexivity. It wasn't the fires of hell that were sucking the air out of the room but the ice-cool stance of this "hell's" creators: they know that we know that they know what they're doing. It's an epistomology that ultimately leads nowhere, except to one very necessary question. Why are these the only two choices for how to construct a world view and therefore a life—medieval fanaticism on one hand and materialist contempt on the other?
Ultimately for me, the tour was neither a Bible-thumping joke nor a come-to-Jesus moment, but a depressing reminder of how hog-tied our entire culture has become. Having moral values and a spiritual sensitivity doesn't make you a religious nutcase, or God forbid, uncool or stupid, and the cultivation of a humanistic ironic detachment can, I would argue, be a form of spiritual discipline. Hopefully theatre artists will begin to find ways to articulate other modes of being that don't require worship at the altar of a false dichotomy: Sincerity vs. Irony. But this once-and now-no-longer believer offers praise and thanksgiving to the theatre gods for the collaboration between Les Freres Corbusier and Pastor Keenan Roberts. Never has the dilemma we're currently in been presented with such horrifying clarity.