By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The October of my sophomore year in high school, a small group of friends and I drove a short way outside Dallas to a haunted house called something like "Eternal Torture" or "Infinite Terror" or "The House of Endless Screams." We should have been clued in to the experience that awaited us by the inclusion of an adjective that meant "eternity" -- a.k.a. the afterlife or our final reward -- but we were too enchanted by the words "torture" and "terror" to think clearly. This was intentional. The organizers wanted to hook kids like us who were already on a seasonal high of haunted-house patronage.Indeed, some of the most heart-jolting theatrical effects I've since experienced came from these Texas institutions, where the fourth wall was not only invisible, but the performers didn't know it existed at all. That insanely giggling white-coated surgeon who removed a calf's liver with a buzz saw from the screaming, unanesthetized patient in front of us lacked the university training to understand that he wasn't supposed to advance on ticketbuyers. And so he did, and we went squealing through the dark hallway and on to the next set.
There was no such threat in the "Place of Perpetual Agony," or whatever, as the creators seemed smugly confident that the horrors they displayed would bring us to our Christian senses without audience disruption. We watched as a young, unwed teenager discovered she was pregnant, opted for an abortion, was strapped onto a filthy table by a villainous doctor, and had a bloody baby doll yanked and twisted slowly from underneath her skirt. Sometime afterward, we witnessed a fey young man (I'd love to know where that devout lad is today, because his smashing impersonation of a decadent homosexual had the authenticity that greater actors strive for but never reach) walk hand-in-hand with another guy through a door marked "Sodom" and reappear on a hospital bed, wheezing and moaning and covered with applique mascara lesions, a pre-Kramer-and-Kushner stage depiction of an AIDS victim early in the pandemic. He, along with the teenage mother and others, waited in a pit of shifting red lights, their arms poking through bars, grabbing at us as we left.
I wasn't politically aware enough at that age to be terribly offended, but I also wasn't raised as a churchgoer, so their proselytizing by damnation demonstration fell to the floor with the wet plop of a calf's brain doubling as a mad scientist's experiment. And I'd just recently seen a nighttime TV program that showed an AIDS patient with a throat swollen so badly by thrush, it had to be scraped out regularly so a straw for liquid nutrition could be inserted. The earnest young nitwit who flailed around on the fundamentalist haunted-house bed with his mother's makeup on his arms was a pretty lame imitation. So I learned a lesson early that has proven true ever since -- a person's eagerness to discuss the torments of hell stands in inverse proportion to his first-hand experience with genuine human suffering.
The current show at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Blood Bondage, is nowhere near as crass or mean-spirited. Still, I couldn't help but think of those bait-and-switch fundamentalist haunted houses, because the press material sent out by ProgreXssive Arts for its debut production prophesies "erotic content" and "mature themes" and "violence." They reneged on all their sweet promises, and I was served instead a convoluted but not entirely uninvolving supernatural treatise on Christian immortality vs. the woes of the vampiric undead. Had playwright Jeffrey A. Seidman and director-star Vikas Adams intended an objective comparison-contrast of the pros and cons of both, the ways in which they are unwittingly similar, then they might truly have made us look at the sacred and the profane in a new way. (Anne Rice, for all that literary critics sniff at her bloody, heaving bosom, veers near this when writing at her best.) Unfortunately, the plot, while it perambulates around topics like Art and Love and Inspiration, leads us straight to an endorsement of Christian salvation. This is not a new goal for theater -- centuries ago, the Roman Catholics, once they understood that the public would not surrender their stage entertainment, relented and mixed productions with one part pagan celebration to three parts Christian ministry.
At least they offered full disclosure of their motives. ProgreXssive Arts mentions no theological concerns in their publicity info, and the erotic content seems limited to choreographer Shannon Leyrer Tate's shoulder and hip gyrations at a drunken party -- that, and one character's declaration, "I may be bisexual, but I'm not bi-desperate!" I was reminded of the Biblical flick The Ten Commandments, in which, because of the watchfulness of 1956 censors, God apparently smites the lascivious inhabitants of Sodom for giving one another piggyback rides.
The cynical interpretation is that ProgreXssive Arts is trying to lure shameless voyeurs like me into the McKinney Avenue Contemporary to cleanse us; a benevolent reading would suggest that the theater artists involved genuinely consider this stuff shocking. I'm not here to trample anyone's virtue, but I would submit that those with more hardened sensibilities who wander unsuspecting into the MAC will come away feeling not just cheated, but manipulated.