Few comedies require their own blood recipes, but Actor's Express' Slasher calls for two. The week before opening, Slasher's production crew sampled two different blood types: a thin liquid that looks deliberately fake, and a thicker one that appears uncomfortably real.
"The thin blood is basically colored water. The thick mixture includes horse lubricant. Some theaters use food-based blood, but we wanted something more washable to keep the ants away," explains Freddie Ashley, Actor's Express' artistic director and director of Slasher.
Alison Moore's horror-comedy depicts an aspiring actress named Sheena (Annie York) who takes a leading role in a low-budget slasher film, only to see her real life turn increasingly terrifying. Actor's Express uses the fake-looking blood for the scenes on the set of the film-within-the-play Bloodbath, but the more realistic brew for the scenes of "actual" violence.
For all of Slasher's horrific theatrics, though, the play targets the audience's laughter more than its fear.
Similarly, Dad's Garage Theatre presents the world premiere of The Change: Another Teenage Werewolf Musical, also a horror-comedy strongly influenced by cinematic conventions. It, too, sneaks in some thoughtful content amid the monstrous antics.
At least every other season Dad's seems to stage a musical with blood 'n' guts slapstick, along with its regular improv format, Monster Movie. When considered along with buzzworthy plays such as Evil Dead: The Musical the Center for Puppetry Arts' annual Halloween shows such as The Ghastly Dreadfuls, they portend a kind of boom in stage horror-comedy. Such shows offer ideal ways to ensnare those prized audiences in their 20s and 30s, who may have less interest in established forms of camp or musical theater traditions.
Sean Daniels, Dad's Garage's former artistic director, directs The Change, a play written by former Atlantan Travis Sharp with music by Eric Frampton. Daniels last helmed a show at the playhouse in 2003 and currently serves as associate artistic director at Actor's Theatre of Louisville. At his new gig, Daniels became friends with Moore, whose Slasher debuted in Louisville's 2009 Humana Festival.
"Slasher is very campy and fun, but also smart in its take on what horror movies and feminism mean," says Daniels. "Alison is one of the few writers who can make a point while conveying it in something sexy and funny. So eventually, there are scantily clad women running around, but when it's over, you realize that it served a greater point."
Ashley further explains how Slasher's themes prove more than skin-deep. "It's about whether horror is an exploitation genre, and is a woman who makes a slasher film participating in the subjugation of women, or just making a movie? At one point Sheena says, 'It cannot be exploitation when they're paying me this much money.' At what point, are you owning your gender identity versus selling it out?"
As Slasher progresses, the action becomes expressively scarier and structured more like a comedy. Sound designer Robert J. Turner uses old playhouse tricks like snapping stalks of bok choy to emulate breaking bones, and industrial sounds like crashing I-beams to jolt the audience.
But scaring the audience isn't Ashley's main priority. "It's [about] 'How do we play it for truth in the world the play creates?' which is a little bigger and louder than the world we live in. It's a world in which a first-generation feminist isn't afraid to get in bed with an anti-abortion group because she knows they'll make a great bomb."
Ashley enjoys realizing Moore's lighthearted critique of schlock cinema but admits, "I'm not a fan of horror movies. It's fun to pick at the conventions of a genre. Here's the villain speech; here's the part where you think the villain's dead but comes screaming back to life; here's the scantily clad woman falling for no reason just when the slasher's chasing her. But then, I'm not a Star Wars fan, and I directed Lawrenceburg by Travis Sharp."
Following Sharp's witty mash-up of Star Wars and The Dukes of Hazzard in 2006's Lawrenceburg and his zombie musical Song of the Living Dead in 2008, The Change suggests a musical version of Michael J. Fox's 1985 comedy Teen Wolf by way of Footloose.
"I think Travis remembered Teen Wolf as this amazing movie that used the werewolf idea to comment on the whole process of a teenage boy going through adolescence," says Daniels. "Then he went back to watch it, and saw that Teen Wolf actually has none of that, so he added those ideas to The Change."
Ed Morgan plays Mikey, whose awkward adolescent phase also includes lycanthropy, with an assist from Atlanta gore effects master Chris Brown. "The mask will hide in the back of Ed's shirt, so he can quickly pull it over his head, and he has furry sleeves that he pulls down over his arms. Chris Brown is trying to make him look like an actual werewolf, rather than a silly werewolf, because having an actual werewolf playing the big lacrosse game is that much funnier," says Daniels.
While neither Ashley nor Daniels perceives that a new trend in horror comedy is infecting American theater, Daniels does see The Change and Slasher as generational shows. "We come from a generation of After School Specials. When you want to talk about issues, you need to do it in less on-the-nose ways. If [The Change] is really about being an adolescent boy, if Alison's play is really about the imagery of women, this is a way to couch it."
Clearly screaming, half-dressed young women and lacrosse-playing werewolves can seize an audience's attention. Slasher and The Change both try to ensure that the grisly spatter effects won't conceal the thoughtful content.