“Flipping through the Fringe guide,” says Greg Maughan, executive director of Philly Improv Theater, “I see a lot of blood.”
It’s more than just the full-page photo of dancer Gunnar Montana, nude but for a strategically placed chainsaw and a lot of fake blood — though the ad for Basement (Sept. 13-21, Asian Arts Initiative) is attention-grabbing. There’s a theme. Maybe it’s the darker sensibility of an audience primed for avant-garde theater, but Fringe is second only to Halloween in terms of people being “ready to buckle down and open their minds” to horrific subject matter, as Paul Triggiani puts it.
Triggiani is the co-creator of Alley of Nightmares (Sept. 19-22, Adrienne Theater), a sketch-comedy show inspired by classic horror anthologies like Tales from the Crypt.
“A lot of horror is similar to sketch because you’re taking the confines of the normal world and introducing some abnormal element that throws it all out of whack,” says Triggiani, who will play the Gatekeeper (shown above), a character in keeping with horror hosts like the Cryptkeeper and TV host John Zacherle.
The latter, a local personality who hosted local TV airings of schlock horror films, is the muse of improviser Rick Horner, who has played a version of Zacherle at Fringe for the last four years, this time in Happy Birthday Kim Hunter (Sept. 18-22, Church of the Crucifixion).
“One of the things I really love about Zacherle is that you can’t immediately figure him out,” Horner says. “There’s an element of discomfort, and there’s comedy to that; when people are uncomfortable and don’t know what to do, a lot of times they laugh. Zacherle found coping mechanisms that the average person might find bizarre, but to him they’re completely normal.”
Edgar Allan Poe, another Philly semi-local, appears in two productions: The Philadelphia Opera Collective’s Opera Macabre: Edgar Allan Poe (Sept. 13-20, Adrienne) and William Burrison’s Poor Poe (Sept. 8-10, Rotunda). The latter finds the author unraveling on a train ride near the end of his life. It’s a revision of the first act of a biographical play about Poe that Burrison has been working on for 20 years, despite not being much of a fan of his writing. “His personality always intrigued me,” Burrison says. “His struggle to eke out a livelihood as a writer is, in a way, really more horrific than his stories.”
Jeffrey Stanley had little need to seek out horror films or literature as a child: He grew up next door to a funeral home in rural Virginia. “My bedroom window looked directly into their embalming room and they never closed the curtain,” Stanley recalls. “So at night I’d go up there and watch, and I could see the body laid out on the slab. For whatever reason it never scared me; I thought it was fascinating.”
That’s one story Stanley will recount in Boneyards (Sept.8-17, Shivtei Yeshuron-Ezras Israel), the one-man semi-sequel to his 2011 Fringe hit Beautiful Zion: A Book of the Dead. The show takes place in the basement of a century-old storefront synagogue and, for its final performance, at Laurel Hill Cemetery — a site that will also host the Manayunk-Roxborough Art Center’s Spoon River Anthology (Sept. 7-8) and Rev Theatre Company’s Six Feet (Above and) Under (Sept. 13-21).
As in Beautiful Zion, Stanley will conclude with a Ouija board séance, a habit he began at a teenage New Year’s Eve party. “We were sitting around the kitchen table in the dark and crazy things started happening. We’re all convinced that by the end of the night we spoke to Jimi Hendrix, he possessed my friend’s kitten and made it pluck his guitar strings.”
Stanley insists that his obsession, like so much horror fiction, has a cathartic side. “As dark and macabre and creepy as it is, I hope it’s ultimately life-affirming. In the end it’s about loving life and taking away some of the fear of death that we have in our culture.”
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