October brings horror to many theater productions

SEEING DOUBLE: Erik Moellering plays the dual roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in When Jekyll Met Hyde at The Magnetic Theatre. Photo courtesy of Magnetic Theatre

Nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous: Throughout the month of October, this is the mood many local theater companies want to create. Horror is king at Asheville Community Theatre, The Magnetic Theatre and North Carolina Stage Company. Serial killers, ax murderers and mysterious fiends step into the spotlight, leaving a few bodies behind in the process.

Jekyll and Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was published in 1886. Framed as a detective story, it follows London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson as he investigates the arrival of the ever mysterious Edward Hyde. The lawyer is unaware that his client, Dr. Henry Jekyll, actually is Hyde — a new personality derived from a chemical concoction.

Within a year of its publication, the work was adapted for the stage. “The minute it was turned into a play … there was always a love interest added,” says local playwright Steven Samuels. In 2011, The Magnetic Theatre staged Samuels’ own version, When Jekyll Met Hyde.

This month, Samuels brings the production back to the playhouse with a new cast and one revised character. The love interest in all past productions, including his own, Samuels notes, lacked “a truly intelligent, thoughtful woman.” While the playwright remains tight-lipped about the specifics, he says this reworking offers a feminist twist to a century-old tale.

Another unique component of Samuels’ adaptation is its dialogue. “I steal everything I can from the greatest literature I can find,” he says. Among the many works, his characters speak lines from Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe.

The writer also incorporates bits from comic books and late-night television. The approach originated as an homage to Samuels’ mentor, Charles Ludlam, a cultural recycler who ran a group in New York called The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. The variance in the play’s language lends itself to the production’s embrace of the absurd. “There are all of these rather unusual juxtapositions,” Samuels says. “You’ll go from some pretty highfalutin’ language to pretty straight-ahead, down-and-dirty language. It elevates the play significantly.”

WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St. themagnetictheatre.org

WHEN: Through Saturday, Oct. 29. Thursdays-Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m. $21 advance/$24 at the door. $10 student rush tickets available 15 minutes before curtain with valid I.D.

ANOTHER SLICE OF PIE: Asheville Community Theatre is putting on the musical, "Sweeney Todd." Steve Parkin plays the title role, with Christy Montesdeoca as Mrs. Lovett. Photo by Rodney Smith/Tempus Fugit Designs
ANOTHER SLICE OF PIE: In Asheville Community Theatre’s production of the musical Sweeney Todd, Steve Parkin plays the title role, with Christy Montesdeoca as Mrs. Lovett. Photo by Rodney Smith/Tempus Fugit Designs

Murder and pie

“I’ve lost count of how many people get murdered onstage,” says Jenny Bunn, marketing director of Asheville Community Theatre. Its latest musical, Sweeney Todd, opens Friday, Oct. 7.

Bunn is quick to add that the show’s director, Jerry Crouch, is thoughtful in his approach toward violence: “He’s more interested in making sure we remember the elements of revenge and the psychology behind what Sweeney is doing, rather than the shock-factor of getting splattered by a bucket of stage blood.”

The Stephen Sondheim musical (adapted from a mid-19th century story from The People’s Periodical and Family Library), tells the story of the titular barber, who returns to London after 15 years in exile, seeking revenge on the corrupt judge responsible for his banishment. When a fellow Londoner attempts to blackmail the barber, Sweeney kills him. In a scheme to get rid of the body, Sweeney teams up with local baker, Mrs. Lovett, who needs fresh meat for her pies. A partnership ensues.

It’s not all murder and pie, though. “It also has elements of comedy in it,” says Crouch. He notes that this component of the musical is crucial to its success. “You really need that to balance out the storyline. … I wouldn’t say it’s a black comedy, but the tongue is definitely in the cheek.”

Both Bunn and Crouch discuss the challenges that come with the production. The score itself is at times dissonant. The harmonies also prove challenging; parts of the narrative are told by a 24-person Greek chorus, which offers commentary on the actions of the main characters. It all comes together, though, under the leadership of musical director Lenora Thom, who Crouch calls “the very best.”

Crouch and Thom have been directing musicals together for 16 years. “They’re just both at the top of their games,” Bunn says. “To have them working together, you just know the end result is going to be solid.”

WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org

WHEN: Friday, Oct. 7, through Sunday, Oct. 29. Friday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at 2:30 p.m. $15-$25

Screams across the airwaves

Eggbeaters, washboards, miniature doors and a pair of shoes will provide the sound effects for Live from WVL Radio Theatre: The Headless Hessian of Sleepy Hollow. Along with shrieks and screams, the production will transport the audience back in time to the 1940s. Two microphones, two tables and four thespians (who play 1940s radio actors voicing on-air characters) will take the stage for an evening of horror stories that include Edgar Allan Poe’sA Tell-Tale Heart,” a reimagining of the Lizzie Borden ax murders and Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

ON-AIR: Live from WVL Radio Theatre takes audiences back to the 1940s in its latest production, The Headless Hessian of Sleepy Hollow. Photo by Nina Swann

The show’s rendition of Poe’s work will stay true to the original story — one of a murderer recounting his crime, while arguing his sanity. The Lizzie Borden tale is a true account based on the 1892 trial and acquittal of a woman who was accused of murdering her father and stepmother in Fall River, Mass. The performance will offer imagined versions of what could have happened on the fatal night. With Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” WVL Radio Theatre brings the post-Revolutionary War tale of Ichabod Crane to the present-day — which, for purposes of continuity, is post World War II America, circa 1947.

Willie Repoley, a cast member as well as the show’s producing director, understands the challenges that come with performing horror stories onstage. “There aren’t a lot of plays out there that are actually scary,” he says. “The theater does a lot of things well, but really frightening you — that is usually accomplished more easily by a book or movie.”

One advantage that Live from WVL Radio Theatre has over more traditional theatrical performances is its set-up. “We’re already engaging the audience in an imaginative way with the radio setting,” says Repoley. Along with the production’s outdated soundboard, “On-Air” and “Applause” signs will mark the stage. In a strange way, says Repoley, this encourages theatergoers to play the role of a live 1940s radio audience. He believes this slight shift from passive member to active participant “makes them more receptive to enjoying some good scares.”

WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org

WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 12, through Sunday, Oct. 16. Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. $15-$25

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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