I am reminded of one of the classic theater reviews of all times. In 1936 twenty year old Orson Welles electrified New York with his staging of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” performed by an all-black cast. Relocating the play from Scotland to a Caribbean island reminiscent of Haiti, it was nicknamed “The Voodoo Macbeth.” After opening night one of the New York critics griped the production had everything except the “kitchen sink.” The next night at the theater, before a packed audience, the lights dimmed, the curtains parted, to reveal a “kitchen sink” sitting center stage.
The production of Michael Teoli and Joe Fria’s “CarnEvil – A Gothic Horror Rock Musical” now at the Sacred Fools Theater, like Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth, throws everything at you but the kitchen sink. Grand Guignol, singers in the rafters, sex, Balinese Wayang kulit techniques, human sacrifice, thundering drums, blood, lesbian lovers, Siamese twins, David Copperfield magic tricks, star-crossed lovers, monstrous puppets, sideshow freaks, fire eaters, alligators, S&M bondage, a cute furry bunny rabbit, depraved killers, big dance numbers and Lovecraftian horrors. With music even!
The tale unraveled in “CarnEvil” is straightforward enough. Danny Farinelli, (James Lynch,) the scion of a small family operated carnival, returns after his release from prison. His crime is never specified though murder is whispered. His cousin, Serena (Natascha Corrigan) welcomes him with open arms and the hope he can turn the fortunes of the struggling enterprise. A portentous meeting one dark night with the Mephistophelian and licentious Craven Moon (Jeff Sumner) who has assembled his own unique acts, among them the life sized “string-less marionettes,” leads to a partnership between the two. Soon the old school carnival with its acrobats and sideshow attractions has been transformed into a sleek, sexy and wildly successful “Cirque du Psychopathic.” Serena voices her distrust of Craven, but Danny dismisses her as being jealous of his triumph in turning the finances of the business around. But then the old carneys begin disappearing and Craven’s true intent oozes up revealing itself, invoking murder and torture all to appease his master – “a shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles, faintly self-luminous, and with myriads of temporary eyes forming and un-forming as pustules of greenish light…*” – Shoggoth and the other unspeakable Elder ones.
While “CarnEvil” has its highs (many) and lows (some) the principal obstruction to this production’s dramatic implementation is its own ambition. The show is on every level overlarge. The cast crowds the stage to the point of clutter. At 22 numbers the show seems song-heavy which is deceptive, as 22 is about the average for Broadway musicals: “Fiddler on the Roof” has 19, “Hello Dolly” 16, “Wicked” 24, “Oliver” 23, “West Side Story” 17 and “The Phantom of the Opera” has 21. The works of Rogers and Hammerstein however rarely exceed 13 songs per show. The actual problem is twofold, first, and most serious for the work itself, is the range of songs which lack the needed divergence in and of themselves; consider the contrast of the tunes from the following:.
From “Hello Dolly” – “Ribbons Down My Back”, “Before the Parade Passes By”, “Hello Dolly”, and “It Only Takes a Moment”.
From “Fiddler on the Roof” – “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Miracle of Miracles”, and “Sunrise, Sunset”.
Lastly, from “West Side Story” – “Maria”, “Tonight”, “I Like to Be in America”, “Somewhere” and “Gee, Officer Krupke”.
Secondly, and this relates directly back to my “overlarge” comment, the amplification overwhelms the audience and comes close to nearly bursting the venue’s seams. Teoli reveals in the program notes that he had been involved in L.A.’s Goth scene and his goal in writing the show was “…to bring some of that aesthetic to the Sacred Fools.” Herein lays another encumbrance; the Goth events I’ve attended were attuned to presenting “the spectacular” rather than “the dramatic.” The mixing of the two presents no problem in parody or camp. But in horror, especially that rarefied form of horror flowing from the strange genius of H.P. Lovecraft, what terrifies us is what is withheld, the languid motion, the muted dissonance.
Compare Robert Wise’s 1963 horror classic “The Haunting” to Jan de Bont’s 1999 remake. De Bont spent $80,000,000.00 bloating his film with state of the art special effects that provoked yawns. Wise’s original, filmed for $1.4 million, has no CGI, no tidal wave of gore or blood, and remains to this day one of the scariest films ever. And the most chilling moment? A close shot of Julie Harris’ hand holding onto nothing. That’s the key to genre. What makes “The Monkey’s Paw” so bloodcurdling is hearing the muffled knocking at the door, not seeing the knocker.
Nevertheless, it must be granted, that faulting a show for its reach exceeding its grasp is faint criticism indeed, and “CarnEvil” under the direction of Janet Roston manages to draw a fair number of “ooohhh’s,” “arghhhh’s,” and even a number of gasps from its audience. The show’s success though rests distinctly with its cast.
In a town where one can see some actors who are not only “telegraphing” their performances on stage, if not “smoke signaling” them, seeing the commitment in the actors of the Sacred Fools Company to give a 100% and then some is both invigorating and deserving of respect. Whatever other strengths or failings of this production there might be, the cast infused it with vitality.
David Haverty, as Albert, Serena’s hypertrichosis love interest, kicks off the show in superb fashion with the opening number, “Step Right UP.” Lynch and Sumner adroitly keep the ball in play and are admirably assisted by Lauren Teoli as Sasha the psychopathic psychic, Moon’s accomplice, who Teoli brings off as Diamanda Galás doing her best Norma Desmond impression. Joey Bybee does double duty. He opens as Abner, Serena’s doomed brother (one of the plays unneeded characters), but Bybee brings home the bacon as the sinister magician Vinchenzo, another of Moon’s cohorts. Giving their support as well are Geoffrey Dwyer, endearing as Jerry the Gator Man; Liza Baron and Whitney Avalon as conjoined succubi; Chairman Barnes as Torch; Shannon Macmillan as Skip the heroic dyke and the rest of the ensemble Katy Tang, Rachel Howe, Brian Wallis, Sondra Mayer, Dan Wingard, and the dance ensemble Erica Lyn Peña, Ceasar F. Barajas, Amanda Gamel, and Anton Garsola. And let us not let the good work of Erika Salomon and Lisa Anne Nicolai, the puppet ensemble, pass unnoticed. (Told you it was a large cast!)
Regrettably, at the time of this writing, unless extended, this show is scheduled to close soon, though one can hope for another staging somewhere down the line with some trimming and a tad re-thinking. If you like your entertainment vigorous and visceral rough theater then Sacred Fools might be to your taste. The worse sin a theater can be guilty of is boring their audience, and this is a fault Sacred Fools is never blemished by.
*H.P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness”.
Sacred Fools Theater
660 N. Heliotrope Dr.
Hollywood, CA 90004