Let’s Put On A Show: ‘Re-Animator’ and DIY Theater

Graham Skipper as Herbert West in Re-Animator: The Musical. Photo by Thomas Hargis.

Last night, I witnessed a beheading, a few murders and a couple of accidental deaths.  Bloody entrails, too, including an unraveled intestine that squirted blood all over me. I never believed these gory acts were real (though I do hope the fake blood will come out of my clothes).  Still, I won’t soon forget seeing Re-Animator:  The Musical.

I didn’t unconditionally love Re-Animator, but I left feeling a bit like a proud parent.   Re-Animator (based on the H.P. Lovecraft camp horror film and playing through mid-August at the Steve Allen Theater) delights in a dramatic aesthetic gaining traction lately, in which awkward stunts, hodge-podge set-pieces and a deliberate desire to expose a show’s nuts and bolts supplant slick production and superficial dazzle.  Provided there’s a strong script and cast, an earnest and contagious “We put this show together for you!” vibe emanates from the stage.  At a time when Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the Broadway musical most determined to wow, has failed to impress many viewers despite all its bells and whistles, small- scale, DIY-style  shows –like Re-Animator, and in New York, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and the recent off-Broadway triumph Peter and the Starcatcher–connect with audiences.

“The audience likes to be put to work, to have their imaginations involved,” says Stuart Gordon, Re-Animator’s director.  “If you do all the work for them, theater becomes a passive experience.”  Doing that “work” requires money, a resource these shows often lack, forcing creative homemade alternatives to fancy props and effects. The Steve Allen’s director Amit Itelman, who was intimately involved in Re-Animator’s development, calls it “making stuff on stage in front of people.” That should be the essence of all theater. “You don’t need realism onstage. We’re playing make believe. Seeing artists try to make something obviously beyond their means. The attempt to pull that off is what’s exciting.”

The cast of Peter and the Starcatcher. Photo courtesy of New York Theater Workshop.

When Spider-Man asks audiences to believe its hero is flying, the fat wires that hoist him above the seats interfere with suspension of disbelief. But in Starcatcher, when Peter falls into the ocean, his cast-mates explicitly hoist him up and buttress his body as the waves would—an effect far more primitive, but more visibly genuine to an audience as well.  In Re-Animator, when a reanimated corpse attacks an actor, that actor chokes himself with the corpse’s stuffed hand. The passionate intent is what matters and ultimately provides a moment of charm, humor or absurdity. “Some of the best sets I’ve seen are made of cardboard,” Itelman says. “It’s about connecting with the performer and the energy of the point of view.”

But precisely because a DIY show exposes its weaknesses, certain skills matter more than in the typical Broadway production. The less tangible elements of the show–unity of vision, character development, even the quality of the score in a musical—cannot falter. Bloody Bloody’s spot-on emo score and charismatic lead allow its audience to appreciate all the more the frantic cast playing multiple roles.  Re-Animator’s  score cleverly references Sondheim, Gilbert and Sullivan and Wagner, but the consistent tongue-in-cheek  tone means listeners won’t confuse parody and self-conscious pastiche.

As Itelman notes, “The point isn’t the wow.” It’s an intimate and genuine connection with the audience. “You’ve fallen in love, so it doesn’t matter if you see the strings.”

Re-Animator: The Musical. Steve Allen Theater. Fri., Sat. and Sun. at 8, through Aug. 14.  800-595-4849. $30.

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