Christmastime has long been a cash cow for arts organizations, with sell-out productions of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol having been known to subsidize entire seasons of theatre and ballet. As the performing arts become less of a regular habit and more about special occasions, could Halloween now be their next big event?
As the holiday has grown in grown-up popularity and expanded into a multiweek affair, lots of upstart theatre companies seem eager to use it to scare up an audience. Indeed, right now, in Toronto, there are at least a half-dozen shows designed to cater to those seeking seasonably spooky thrills – or, at least, ironically spooky ones.
If any of them can stand on their own feet any time of year, it's Evil Dead: The Musical, a metatheatrical mash-up of the first and second in the 1980s horror movie series of the same name by director Sam Raimi.
Since its birth in Toronto 10 years ago, this comic creation of George Reinblatt and a quartet of composers has had several lengthy runs in Toronto and gone on to play off-Broadway and as far afield as Korea. It's probably the most successful Canadian musical after The Drowsy Chaperone, Anne of Green Gables and Billy Bishop Goes to War, believe it or not.
Evil Dead, playing at the Randolph Theatre until Dec. 22 at least, has a young, cult following that still seems enthused by this tongue-in-check tale of five college kids and an evil cabin in the woods. To the less devoted, however, all the PC-sensibility poking and musical-mocking jokes may feel dated by a decade. The Broadway industry has refined and megasized these Fringe festival japes into hits like The Book of Mormon in the meantime.
What remains unique to Evil Dead: The Musical is its reliably disgusting Splatter Zone, which douses the first three rows in fake blood. (If this does not appeal, I'd even avoid the fourth row – as I sat there and my notebook was nevertheless spotted with gore.)
Ryan Ward, who has been playing the lead, Ash, since the start, returns as the S-Mart employee turned reluctant chainsaw-wielding hero. His deadpan delivery, however, now seems to be verging on merely dead. More spirit comes from younger, fresher cast members – notably Daniel Williston, who is hilariously unhinged as a hillbilly Jake, and Laura Tremblay who doubles as a ditz unable to get a sentence out and an archeologist unable to finish one. Tremblay triumphs over the mild Maxim-era sexism of the characters and steals the show musically with the only really catchy song, a faux 1960s girl group ditty called All the Men in My Life Keep Getting Killed By Candarian Demons. Otherwise, the score by the coterie of composers only ever seems like an afterthought to the gross-out gags; the band is canned, not live – and, even then, the production didn't have its sound mix right on opening night. I imagine, or hope, that will improve.
In terms of smaller-budget shows, You Can Sleep When You're Dead, from the five-year-old indie company Theatre Lab, has transformed Campbell House, the oldest remaining house from the old Town of York, into a haunted historic site for Halloween. Visitors are split into two groups of theatregoers and given tours during which six spooky short stories by different playwrights are summoned up.
Kat Sandler's Will is the most amusing and original scene, concerning the ungrateful relatives of a deceased millionaire – and a woman who shows up with designs on his corpse. (Sandler, who has a knack with comic dialogue and has developed a young following outside of the mainstream theatres in Toronto, also has a full-length Halloween-themed show, Sucker, on at the Storefront Theatre right now.) Other playlets that try to play it straight and scary fall flat. Glyn Bowerman's Little Sparrows concerns a governess and her mad employer and is entirely derivative, while Omar Hady's Demon Daughter is a riff on The Exorcist that makes you squirm for the wrong reasons. The staging, overall, is unremarkable: Giggling maniacs dressed like Tim Burton extras appear in the hallways in-between bits, but up close, they are no more frightening than trick-or-treating toddlers.
Birth of Frankenstein, from Litmus Theatre, tries something a little more ambitious – telling two creation myths at once. In the atmospheric old parlour room of Saint Luke's United Church in the east end, the young company of actors is staging a new play about how Mary Shelley ran off with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and her stepsister Jane to Lord Byron's castle on Lake Geneva to write Frankenstein in 1816. At the same time, they attempt to tell Shelley's story itself.
Litmus made a delightful show a couple of years ago called Matchbox Macbeth, staged in a garage in a downtown alley, and here director Matthew Thomas Walker has again found fun ways to use found space with characters at times seeming to teleport across the room.
But, with only an hour to work with and too much material, the piece feels like no more than a prologue to a story already told, just recently and with more verve, by Darrah Teitel in her sexy play, The Apology. Just as I was starting to get into it, Birth of Frankenstein was all over – though that's always better than outstaying your welcome at a Halloween party.