"A long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody's crazy." Charles Manson said that. If anybody's qualified to weigh in on crazy, it's Charlie Manson. He's 77 now, in his 42nd year of a life sentence.
In the Ochre House theater's chilling, strangely thrilling new show Mean, set in the summer of '69, Charlie, played by the wraith-thin Mitchell Parrack, is a young ex-con dreaming of a music career. A bar outside Twentynine Palms, California, is holding its weekly open-mic night, and Charlie has original songs to sing. Songs about what the voice of the devil is whispering in his ear. Songs about an apocalyptic race war that will tear America up from the inside out.
Funny though, everybody at the White Horse tavern, a dumpy roadhouse with dusty floors and sticky tabletops, thinks Charlie's a pest. One-eyed bartender Carl (Kevin Grammer) keeps telling Charlie to shut the eff up and get off the stage. The good-natured house band, the Hell Raisers, led by a handsome guitar-pickin' galoot called Dale (Justin Locklear), can't tolerate twitchy little Charlie either. They're eager to play boot-scootin' anthems and old-timey honky-tonk. When they finally let Charlie sing his Doors-like "17 Angels," he harshes the vibe. After that, all the songs start to sound like twisted fantasies out of Charlie Manson's id.
Manson Family Values
Mean continues through March 10 at the Ochre House. Call 214-826-6273 or www.ochrehousetheater.com.
Ochre House founder and artistic wrangler Matthew Posey is writer, director and co-star of Mean, his 16th show at the little storefront by Fair Park. Posey has written himself a menacing and sexy role as Charles "Tex" Watson, the Farmersville, Texas, track-star-turned felon who became Manson's partner in crime in the late 1960s. In the show, Tex stumbles into the bar, pounds a few shots, sings a number in a Johnny Cash growl and then decides to rob the place. He clicks with squirrely Charlie and with a skinny redhead named Lynette Fromme (Anastasia Muñoz) who squeals when her ass is squeezed. For that she's nicknamed "Squeaky."
Mean lets Posey and company imagine the genesis of "the Manson Family," that mess of young hippies, criminal drifters, ex-homecoming queens and alienated teenagers who regarded Charlie as their guru. In real life, they lived together in shacks in the desert outside Los Angeles. Some of them killed together, on orders from Charlie.
Nobody cared about Charles Manson or Tex Watson until August 9, 1969. As Joan Didion wrote in her L.A. memoir The White Album, the peace-and-love era of the '60s "ended abruptly" the night Tex and some Manson family girls slaughtered pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others in a rented Benedict Canyon mansion. The next night, as Charlie waited in the car, they killed two more people in what the press would dub the "Tate/LaBianca murders." The killers wrote "pig" and "helter skelter" in victims' blood at the crime scenes. "Make it witchy," Charlie had told them.
Mean is a fictional prequel to all that, introducing Charlie to Tex and Squeaky among the barflies with whom they share the tiny dance floor at the White Horse. (There's a surprising amount of good dancing in this show, choreographed by the team of Muñoz and Delilah Buitron, who also plays bartender Carl's wife.)
Married couple Doris and Marty (Elizabeth Evans and Dante Martinez) drop in decked out in Native American costumes on their way to a party. Truck driver Trevor (Trent Stephenson) comes in with his ancient grandfather (Cyndee Rivera under excellent old-age makeup) and takes the stage to sing the toe-tapping "Six Pack." The old man seems to sense danger in the presence of Charlie and Tex, but everybody's too busy drinking, singing and fussing to heed his warnings.
"In this summer of love, you never know what the guy next to you is gonna do," croons Dale, the smiling band leader. The Hell Raisers (Locklear, Trey Pendergrass and Lyle Hathaway) wrote all the music and serve as Mean's Greek chorus. Dale speaks in the calmly cheerful cadence of singing cowboy Roy Rogers. Even when things get bloody, Dale and the boys remain outside the fray, strumming and singing one last ballad as the lights fade out.
Like so many of Ochre House's productions, Mean has a mesmerizing quality that makes it entertaining and disturbing. "There's poetry to being mean," says Tex in the second act's sudden eruption into violence. "It don't have to make sense and it don't have to rhyme."
Posey's staging of the musical numbers creates beautiful pictures of terrible things. Posey's Tex Watson does a haunting waltz with the bartender's wife – after strangling her with a plastic bag. That's an image that'll stick with you long after the show is over.
Mean grabs the audience and doesn't let go. You're immersed in the atmosphere of the White Horse as soon as you step inside the Ochre House. Posey has shifted the 40-seat theater's furniture around to put everyone smackdab in the middle of the saloon, close enough to the actors to feel the heat of Charlie Manson's piercing gaze. (Parrack, starved down to skin and bones for the role of Charlie, is nightmarishly good.)
Actors slam in and out through the theater's front door for entrances and exits, sending shocks of cold night air through the place. At the Ochre House, the "wings" are an alley and Exposition Avenue.
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The only sour note in the production of Mean is the over-use of strobe lights in a couple of numbers. This show doesn't need lighting tricks to signal departures from reality. With Squeaky up on the bar doing a slow-mo frug and Tex and Charlie slitting people's throats as the band strums along, we get the impact of the hideous visuals just fine.
Posey's done his research for Mean, incorporating Manson's own words into the script. But the best line goes to Dale, who sums up the chemistry of the Manson family's founding trio: "Charlie did the thinking, Tex did the killing and Squeaky cheered them on."
All three are still serving time, by the way, their death sentences commuted to life in 1972. Charlie Manson is eligible to apply for parole again this year. (It will never be granted.) Some of his songs have been recorded by the Beach Boys, Guns N' Roses and Marilyn Manson. Squeaky Fromme, who did not participate in the Tate/LaBianca murders, got life for attempting to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975. She escaped from prison once, trying to get to her beloved Charlie after hearing he had testicular cancer. Tex Watson, who shot and stabbed the people Charlie wanted dead, is now 65. He was denied parole for the 14th time last November but will be up for it again in 2016. While in prison in California, he has fathered four children, earned a college degree and become an ordained minister. He was interviewed several years ago on Pat Robertson's 700 Club, talking about Jesus.