I’m in New York and have just seen Hell House, the latest show by Les Freres Corbusier, one of the most exciting young theatre groups working in this country. It’s playing at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, where the whole season is pretty exciting — including the first staging of Lou Reed’s album Berlin, and the US premiere of the Wooster Group’s Hamlet.
Hell House plays are essentially the modern extension of a medieval theatrical form — pageant wagons and mystery plays — when elaborate, fire-and-brimstone stage devices were employed to scare non-believers into returning to the church. The contemporary incarnation is the brainchild of Pastor Keenan Roberts, an evangelical preacher at the New Destiny Christian Center in Northglenn, CO. For several years has been sell do-it-yourself Hell House kits to churches around the country, and apprently more than 300 plays are now staged each year. Les Freres have brought the phenomenon to New York for the first time, and the result is horrible and fascinating. St Ann’s has been divided into a series of rooms through which a small group of audience members progress, accompanied by a devil who introduces us to a series of ghoulishly enacted “sins” — gay marriage, abortion (complete with a bloody reinactment of an adult-size fetus being plucked from a womb), extra-marital sex, and so on. The journey takes us to hell, where we meet Satan, then finally to a white-walled, sparkling heaven, where Jesus greets us and asks us to join his side.
While clearly the artistic team of Les Freres are not endorsing Roberts’ evangelical message, nevertheless they chose to play the Hell House straight — even bringing the Pastor in to coach them. The striking lack of irony in the performance seemed to me exactly right; the Hell House, no matter how distasteful to some of us, is an important aspect of the American cultural landscape, and director Alex Timbers and his collaborators are enabling East Coast audiences to experience it in as authentic a mode as possible. The result is theatrically crude but surprisingly effecting — at times even horrifying. The audience has been neatly split between cynical and sophisticated New Yorkers, students protesting that the production is happening at all, and evangelical Christians who take it in earnest. A provocative and important event in the New York scene. I wish we could bring it to the A.R.T., but with a cast of more than 45 devils, sinners and saints, it’s too large for us at the moment. Les Freres are worth keeping an eye on, though, and I hope that we’ll collaborate with them in the future.