The pretty brunette in the tortoiseshell glasses and the keffiyeh wanted to know if she was going to be scared.
“There are some pretty shocking things in there, some pretty startling things,” the usher told her, smiling. “But probably no.” From behind the curtain, and above the spooky synthesizer washes, came screams for help, howls of pain, crazed laughter. The usher pursed her lips, seeming to consider: “I think you’ll be O.K.”
Then the tall, burly man in the black cloak with the hood appeared. His orotund voice boomed and rasped. “Welcome, ladies and gentleman. I’ve been expecting you. We’re all going to have so much fun tonight at our … Hell House!”
When you heard that the avant-garde theater group Les Freres Corbusier would be staging a Hell House at the avant-garde theater space St. Ann’s Warehouse, you wondered what they meant by it and how it would go over.
The night began with a gang rape. In the first room, one of nine we walked through, “Jessica” isn’t having the best time at her first rave. But look, there’s like this “totally hot guy” that’s “totally checking her out.” The hot guy, “Chad,” can see Jessica isn’t entirely comfortable—and he wants to help. “Try one of these,” he says, offering her a little pill. “It will relax you.”
Moments later, Jessica’s sprawled on the floor. “She’s out,” declares Chad, whipping off his shirt. “Let’s rape her!”
The Reverend Jerry Falwell first dreamed up the Hell House in the 1970’s as a way to scare kids away from sin and back into the arms of Christ. Colorado Pastor Keenan Roberts began selling Hell House kits—scripts, stage directions and a soundtrack are available for $200—back in 1996. Roberts claims that more than 3,000 churches stage Hell Houses every year.
Les Freres Corbusier used one kit to create a perfect replica. A disclaimer of sorts had been tacked up next to the ticket window: “THIS AUTHENTIC DEPICTION OF A HELL HOUSE IS MEANT TO EDUCATE AND INFORM ABOUT A PARTICULAR RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT, NOT TO ENDORSE ANY SPECIFIC IDEOLOGY.”
One thing, however, was clear. Merely by sticking faithfully (as it were) to the script—by playing it (as it were) straight—Les Freres Corbusier has unleashed the edgiest entertainment to be had anywhere in the city. Not since the Meese Commission Report on Pornography has so much stagy titillation been collected in one place.
St. Ann’s Warehouse is a converted space amid picturesque post-industrial ruins by the waterfront under the Manhattan Bridge. At Sunday night’s opening, smatterings of smartly attired hipsters clustered at the candlelit tables in the enormous high-ceilinged waiting area and took a moment to parse out their stance toward what awaited them. Many motives were present. They were prepared to be giddy, but also to be frightened. By turns, they were appalled but curious, jaded sensation-seekers looking for a dose of high camp, or concerned liberals anxious to see at first hand what the red states think of them. The ambivalence made the room vibrate with a queasy intensity.
“I’m mostly here to see a freak show,” conceded Amy Slonaker, a 34-year-old lawyer and record collector. “But it also does actually dovetail with some of my intellectual interests,” she said, interlocking her fingers together to illustrate the connection. Ms. Slonaker grew up in an Evangelical Christian family in Santa Barbara, Calif., and studied religion in college. “I decided that it was all bullshit in junior high school,” Ms. Slonaker continued, “but I just kind of kept quiet and didn’t rock the boat until I could finally escape.”
Later, a clearly shaken Charles Mee, the playwright, stopped for a moment to reflect on what he had just seen. “First of all,” he began, “it’s amazing …. The very thought that this is a play that thousands of people see and take seriously is almost unbelievable. You don’t believe the text unless you already believe the context. It just seems stupid and preposterous and not funny—just appallingly unbelievable and unpersuasive.”
In one scene, a doctor wearing a yarmulke withholds treatment from a once-catatonic woman whose feeding tube has just been ripped from her throat. The woman has sprung back to life, but the doctor is unmoved.
“And so then you have to think as a left-winger,” Mr. Mee continued. “Is all of our left-wing theater equally unpersuasive unless you already believe, unless it’s confirming your prejudice? Is it really funny for somebody in the theater to just say the words ‘George W. Bush’?”
Brian Dooda, a 29-year-old theater archivist who lives in Greenpoint, was more blithe. “I’m definitely here to laugh,” he said. “But listen, I think this is probably something that even the evangelical kids laugh at.”
Irony is not, by its nature, a thing that can die; to declare the death of irony is to make yourself its fool. But something can happen to irony when you lose a stable point of reference from which to distinguish, say, an anti-gay screed from high camp, or anti-pornography crusading from pornography itself, or Christian proselytizing from the darkest blasphemy.
Later on in Hell House, we see a high-school cheerleader laid out on a stretcher in her uniform, complete with pom-poms. She is drenched in blood. There is blood splattered on the wall and on the scrubs of the doctor, who smokes a cigarette as he cues up the vacuum cleaner. We move into a red womb and see large aluminum forceps extract a girl dressed as a fetus from the birth canal.
Finally, we are taken on a guided tour of Hell. Wailing, lamentations, shrieks. A man grabs me by the arm. “He told me I was born gay, and I believed them!” he shouts. “Allah told me to blow up the subway!” screams a man with an Indian accent. “He said that was what I should do, and I believed him. But I was wrong, so wrong!” A man in a tuxedo lisps out a flamboyant show tune: He’s on his way to his wedding. He’s in Hell, but why isn’t he suffering? We laugh and laugh—we can’t help but laugh.
Then we found ourselves in a room filled with light arrayed with white curtains. A bearded man in a white robe appears wearing a beatific expression. It’s an actor pretending to be an actor pretending to be Jesus. His amateurish delivery is a sign of his very professionalism. But after all the din and all the chortling we had done, the words he spoke cast a sudden hush around the room—and even in the presence of all these unbelievers, you felt something move in you to be with these other people and hear kindly words and fair promises declaimed. It was perhaps the most insidious moment of all.
“If you believe with your whole heart that I was raised from the dead, and you confess with your mouth that I am the Lord,” the actor pretending to be an actor pretending to be Jesus assured us, “you will be saved. And your name will be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and every single person whose name is in that book will spend eternity with me in Heaven.”