It's difficult to evaluate Les Freres Corbusier's production of Hell House with the usual tools of theater criticism. While there is a set and there are actors, and there is an episodic narrative of sorts, these usual points of reference for theater audiences and critics are almost beside the point. Hell House is as much anthropological exploration as theatrical production, and responses to it reveal more about the audience members at any given performance than they do about the aesthetic or even political agenda of the production itself. However you approach it, and whether you find it funny, frightening, or quaint, this is a unique experience for New York and promises to further solidify Les Freres Corbusier's position as one of the city's most buzz-worthy theater companies.
Apparently originated by Jerry Falwell in the 1970's, the Hell House tradition was formalized, gore-ified, and packaged for marketing by Keenan Roberts, senior pastor of an Assemblies of God affiliate in Colorado. Roberts has created an "outreach kit" to help individual churches and organizations set up their own Hell Houses. Kits include scripts, a sound effects CD, a DVD with samples of finished scenes, and advice on how to produce fake blood and aborted fetus parts. Thousands of Hell Houses spring up around the country every October. They are evangelically deconstructed haunted houses, with ghosts and goblins replaced by sinners and Satan.
Patrons are shuffled through a series of rooms by a demonic tour guide. The rooms depict a variety of sinful choices: date rape, abortion, drug use, gay weddings, suicide, and just plain secular humanism are some examples. Whenever possible, these scenes are drenched in stage blood. Eventually the tour leads to hell and then to heaven. The goal is to keep some of the fun and thrills of secular "haunted houses" while appealing to religious sensibilities and making the audience fear not only for their bodies but for their souls. Having been shaken by relatively graphic depictions of sinful lives, audience members are encouraged to join with a prayer partner and either convert to evangelical Christianity or reaffirm their faith. According to Roberts, his Hell Houses have a "33% Salvation rate."
While most Hell Houses are produced by churches and other religious organizations, this one has been produced by one of New York's trendiest young theater companies. Les Freres Corbusier has garnered significant attention over its first several years, most recently with 2005's Heddatron. The company has developed a reputation for creating contextually ironic work without overtly mocking its source material.
This approach has clearly informed its new production as well. While it would have been all too easy to drench Hell House in equal amounts of irony and stage blood, director Alex Timbers and company have tried to approach the material as straight-on as possible. In marked contrast to the controversial 2004 Hollywood Hellhouse, which featured Bill Maher and Andy Richter, among others, Les Freres Corbusier has tried to recreate the phenomenon rather than mock it. In fact, producer Aaron Lemon-Strauss, in a recent interview in The Gothamist, revealed that one of the only significant changes made to Roberts's script is that many of the intentional jokes have been removed for fear that audiences would assume these jokes had been inserted by the artistic team.
Of course, there is considerable irony built into the context of this production. A Hell House produced by a hip young theater company at one of the city's hippest performance spaces, for an audience mostly clad in black turtlenecks and NYU sweatshirts, is, inevitably, a decidedly secular experience. The production also resulted in the fascinating spectacle of skilled actors pretending to be amateur actors, a kind of double-performance that would not be present in a Bible Belt production. Intriguingly, the stilted delivery of the sometimes excruciating dialogue faded as the Hell Room approached. Just as the scenes were meant to be progressively more frightening, the anguish in the performers' voices became more and more genuine as the tour approached its climax.
The most notable change to the usual Hell House configuration is that Les Freres decided not to include a prayer and conversion room. Instead, the tour ended with a Christian rock band, punch, and powdered doughnuts. While this decision seems to have been made in a spirit of respect for religion, it rendered the concluding room all too comfortable for an audience already safely removed from the material. Whether they were disgusted or amused by the preceding spectacle, it would have been fascinating to see this audience confronted by earnest invitations to drink the proverbial punch (not just the Kool-Aid) and embrace the evangelism behind Roberts's creation.