For centuries, the macabre has found its way into the canon of theatrical performance, capturing the imaginations of audiences around the world. From Shakespeare’s original Macbeth to Punchdrunk’s current site-specific production based on the Scottish play, Sleep No More — the thrill of the dark unknown is still being sought by audiences today. Such is the case with Xoregos Performing Company’s Danse Macabre, which made its premiere at Theater for the New City earlier this month. Danse Macabre owes much of itself to the traditions of “Grand Guignol,” a term for the graphic horror style of theater that first found its footing at Paris’ Le Théâtre du Grand Guignol during the late 1890s. This style often contains stories with themes of amorality, and often alternated the gory scenes with humorous skits and musical vaudevilles. Danse Macabre certainly succeeds in translating these elements into our modern times. It never aspires to reach the shock-horror scale that so many films of the genre resort to, but instead takes its time as each scene unfolds, until it finally creeps up on you.
The show opens with a series of skits written by various playwrights: a collection of scenes that at first seem ordinary, but soon start veering toward the dark and disturbing. With the company playing multiple roles, this was never more evident than in the show’s latter two skits, “Daddy’s Boy” by Pamela Scott and “The Bender” by Jack Feldstein. In “Daddy’s Boy,” a recently-divorced detective (Nick Giedris) tries to convince his young son to “play a trick” on his ex-wife by pretending to shoot her. The son (Trevor DeVone), the “Daddy’s Boy” in question, goes back and forth between hesitation at the request and desire to please his father. In the end, he eventually decides against it — or does he? In “The Bender,” a young girl (Janice Amano) stumbles drunkenly out into a darkened street and into her friend standing on the curb (Nicolas Cerkez). She starts what ends up being a mostly one-ended conversation, even flirting with him. All the while, he looks around cautiously, as if to make sure no one else is around, before reaching into his coat pocket and…
Well, you get the idea. Both scenes are quietly creepy, making you look over your shoulder and think twice about talking up that cute stranger on the train ride home. However, while this is all part-and-parcel of what the show intends, not all of it will leave you with the goosebumps. Much of Danse Macabre also has its moments of comedic relief — most of which could be found in the other three skits — “Out of Bounds” by Dylan Guy, “Zandar the Magnificent” by Joel Trinidad and “Among My Souvenirs” by Dave DeChristopher.
“Out of Bounds,” starts off rather tame as we meet Wally (Sam Eckmann) and Crunch (Cerkez), two friends just conversing over a beer. The conversation seems to start off innocently enough — with the two sharing a quick-witted exchange not unlike the kind heard in old films of the 1950s — until Wally starts telling Crunch about a dead mouse he’s been keeping in a box. Or, at least it looked dead when Crunch opened it. In “Zandar the Magnificent,” a send-up on those phony crystal ball prophets (with Giedris as the eponymous seer), a woman named Jo (Pamela Stewart Ehn) asks him to foresee her fate, only for a freak accident to occur, causing the once-phony to suddenly acquire “the gift.”
Last but certainly not the least, “Among My Souvenirs” is perhaps the funniest of the three, if unexpectedly so. In the scene, a young working stint named Caryn (Natalie Margiotta) finds her apartment infested with mice. After exterminating them, she is stuck with figuring out what to do with their dead remains, until she suddenly remembers everyone she seeks revenge on. With Margiotta narrating, she is helped by the other members of the company in reenacting her demented revenge spree, inciting much laughter from the audience.
As the series of skits ends, there is a two-minute pause before the title dance piece starts. It is a dreamlike sequence, with a young girl in a nightgown surrounded by ghoulish figures and eventually being led away by a mysterious man in a cape. The dancing, choreographed by director Shela Xoregos after the original work of historian-choreographer Angene Feves, is simple in its movement and feels more like watching a mini-play in the vein of The Red Shoes take place. It is here where Raiza Peña’s costumes really shine, especially with the ghouls; she uses the familiar sight of figures under sheets, an idea which seems juvenile and trite, but here looks and feels just as creepy as their movements.
All in all, Danse Macabre is an experience to, well, experience! With minimalistic sets by Lisa Barnstone and beautiful lighting by Don Cate, the show feels like an old vaudevillian set, but with a Twilight Zone-like twist. Full of plot twists and cliff hangers, played to spine-chilling perfection by the company, Danse Macabre will leave you simultaneously laughing and squirming in your seat.