My Favorite Horror Films, or Why I Can’t Sleep at Night

or, Why I Can’t Sleep at Night
                There is an interesting article in a recent Entertainment Weekly stating that January and February are now the prime time for horror movies to show in theaters.
                This is a complete reversal of the usual trope from decades before – horror movies belonged in October. January was the dumping grounds for trash on which the Oscar contenders and leftover holiday blockbusters sat.
                I suspect one or two horror movies made a splash in January and the trend caught on. October is now the dumping ground – a metaphoric breathing-in between summer and holiday blockbusters.
                I have been thinking about horror movies lately. I Tivoed a cheesy program called Monsters and Mysteries in America from the Destination America network. It is a step-child of the Discovery Channel family and airs mainly white-trashy reality shows. But amongst the Cracker TV fare are a few cheesy gems: UFOs over Earth, When Ghosts Attack and Alien Mysteries.
                Yes, these shows are mainly about rednecks discussing being anally probed by aliens after their sister/wives ran off with Bigfoot, but they also feature authors and … um … “scientists” taking this schlock seriously.
                I admit to being a sucker for anything about Bigfoot or aliens. I consume any book by Zechariah Sitchin or Erich von Daniken. I am a faithful viewer of Ancient Aliens on the “History” Channel.
                This episode of Monsters and Mysteries in Americafeatured Momo the Missouri Monster. I’ve heard of and read about Momo, so I wanted to watch the show. Momo was the first feature. The third (last) feature was about a bat-creature that terrorized a mining town in Iowa in the early 1900s. The middle feature was about the Shadow People in Maryville, Missouri.
                Here’s a good blog about the show:
                The Shadow People segment pushed all my buttons. Dark figures with glowing eyes standing next to your bed as you sleep; whispering …
                I was awake until two that morning afraid to open my eyes. I knew; I KNEW I would see one standing next to my bed. A “real” one? No, but my active imagination was going on all cylinders that night.
                I see figures standing in my room or next to my bed quite often. That’s been the case since I was a kid living with my parents. I frequently saw a lady in a red dress sitting in a chair across the room from my bed; I saw a winged creature hovering over my bed. The latter was my hat collection and other wall-hangings through my still-bleary-myopic eyes – my mind making sense of a blurred shape. The former … well, where did the lady in the red dress come from? A teenager with raging hormones imagining a woman in his room? Oh my goodness, someone call Dr. Freud…
                Just a few weeks ago I dreamt someone was grabbing me while I was in bed. I screamed so loud my wife was afraid I would scare our daughter in her bedroom. She slept through it. Once I dreamt I was lying in bed next to my wife as a vampire stood over me; keeping me hypnotically frozen. My wife said I was saying, very calmly, “Esther wake me up, Esther wake me up,” as I slept. When she nudged me I jumped up and out of the nightmare.
                It reminded me of a post-college nightmare when my roommate ran into my room after I screamed bloody murder when a vampire at the foot of my bed leapt at me. It was the ceiling fan.
                Before that, in college, I saw a man in a blue-and-red-striped shirt walking through my room. I called out the name of my roommate – “Scott, what are you doing?” – and the figure turned and walked toward me. By now my roommate (Scott) walked into my room. He heard me call his name and woke me up by asking me what I wanted. The figure disappeared as I gained consciousness.
                So the Shadow People were right up my fearful alley, if you know what I mean. Add to this my love of horror movies and stories and you can see why I was up most of the night. I could start quite a cause-and-effect argument here.
                My reading and viewing of all things horror have been curtailed by my marriage and my daughter. I don’t want either of them walking in during The Exorcist, for example.
                My wife is getting more accustomed to it: she’s become a fan of Sleepy Hollow … fairly light-weight in the horror department (although they’ve had some good shows) and just about at her tolerance-level.
                So I’ve missed out on a lot of horror-themed TV series and movies in the past decade.
                During my sleepless evening I compiled a list of my favorite horror movies. These aren’t the critically best (although some are) and not the most financially successful (although some are); these are mine. To repeat the phrase – the ones that press the right buttons; sometimes much to my regret.
                Except for the first on the list, these are on no particular order:
1.       The Haunting (1963). It’s a black-and-white movie with a plot that in these “modern” times is something out of Scooby-Doo (spending the night in a haunted house to see if it really IS haunted), but this fifty-one-year-old flick is the scariest thing I have ever seen. The scene in the girls’ bedroom where the ghost (or whatever it is) pounds on the walls, making pictures and plaster fly, and watching it head to the door that pulses and creaks … I get chills down my back just thinking about it.
2.       The Exorcist (1973). A very canny choice, I know, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a genuinely terrifying movie. The movie went straight for the throat (or vagina if we’re talking crucifix) – there was no doubt little Regan was possessed by the devil. If they remake it they should do more of the book – we were never sure if she was possessed or had a psychotic breakdown while the terror was merely a ruse by the housekeeper to cover up a murder.
3.       Prince of Darkness (1987). John Carpenter movies make up a quarter of this list. A priest finds a cylinder of swirling green liquid in the basement of an abandoned church. He brings in a team of scientists to examine the cylinder. The liquid is the anti-Christ’s ectoplasmic form. It squirts at the scientists one by one causing them to go insane in beautiful Lovecraftian fashion. It awoke in time to summon its father – the anti-god. A movie that includes scientific method, intergalactic elder things and Alice Cooper? How can it be bad?
4.       In the Mouth of Madness (1995). John Carpenter takes on an even more Lovecraftian-themed work. An insurance investigator looks into the disappearance of horror author Sutter Cane (a very thinly veiled Stephen King) and tracks him to a town that appears in one of the author’s horror books – a place that should not exist. Ends up the author was channeling real horrors from eldritch dimensions who are ready to take over the earth. Can Sam Neill (the investigator) stop the coming apocalypse? Are you kidding?
5.       Halloween (1978). Another John Carpenter movie. Another canny choice. But this is one of the scariest flicks ever made. Carpenter’s soundtrack alone brings chills – I usually cringe in horror when I hear cheap Casio music anyway, but this is genuinely scary music! And there’s not one startling moment in the movie – we see Michael approaching and stalking Lady Hadin-Guest (Jamie Lee Curtis) and we know where he is and what he will do at all times – it is all suspense in the best Hitchcockian style.
6.       Blair Witch Project (1999). Not the first movie of the “found footage” genre, but the one that put the genre on the map. A lot of people hate this movie, but I am a big fan. Creepy, scary and realistic. Movies like this HAVE to be realistic. The more founded it is in reality the scarier it is. I would put this movie above Cloverfield (2008) another found-footage movie only in a science-fiction vein based on a what-if-a giant-Godzilla-like-thing-REALLY-attacked-New-York story.  I think Blair Witch has aged well (as all of these movies have) and Cloverfield was creepy even on cable in between long commercial breaks and watched over three days (when the wife and daughter were elsewhere).
7.       Evil Dead (1981). Evil Dead II is one of my favorite movies, period. II combined spooky stuff with humor – humor and horror go VERY well together when done right – but the original was cheaper and scarier. This movie put Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell on the movie map and rightly so. Very Lovecraftian – it includes an appearance by the Necronomicon – and the fact that it was made on a small budget only adds to the realism. True story: I saw this in college with assorted roommates, friends and girlfriends. Being college cool cats, we had our TV set up through the stereophonic hi-fi. In one scene a rescued victim (who had been maniacally giggling throughout a scene) stopped giggling. The surviving cast look at her. She looks up and sings “We’re going to get you; we’re going to get you…” We screamed and shuddered. I had enough and jumped up to turn the TV off. Trouble was, it was on VHS. I turned off the picture, but the tape was still rolling and the speakers were still playing. “We’re going to get you; we’re going to get you…” If the neighbors weren’t in the house watching with us, they would have called the police.
8.       Night of the Living Dead (1968). Speaking of small budgets adding to the realism … Do you REALLY need me to describe this movie? And its impact on the genre? Really? Turn on the TV or scroll through your Facebook wall for about two minutes. Did you NOT see something about zombies? You’re lying …
9.       Pandorum (2009). I saw this movie on the SciFi Channel and loved it so much I bought the DVD. You‘ve might not have heard of it. I’ve discussed the synergy between science fiction and horror in prior blog ( and this one, to me, hits all the right notes. Something that Event Horizonsomehow missed.  The premise was a great one and almost made it. A two-man (originally three-man) crew was revived from their deep-space hibernation to take their shift in a generational/colony ship. We learn that in the meantime earth had been destroyed and these colonists are all that is left of humanity. Trouble is, our crew is revived to find their ship lost and out of power. Making their way out of their assigned department, they discover the ship is overrun with flesh-eating superhuman humanoids. Where did they come from? Is there anyone else alive on the ship? Can they escape or at least get the ship up and running so they can defend themselves? It is a claustrophobic and intense thrill-ride. I think the secret of the Hunters is disappointing when finally revealed. But the final twist at the end more than made up for it. The ending and final solution took me completely by surprise. It was meant to be a trilogy but was unsuccessful at the box office – although it has gained quite a cult following. Myself included.
10.   Alien (1979). Speaking of science fiction and horror … I go into a lengthy discussion of how this movie works so well in my blog about Event Horizon (hyperlink is above). I won’t repeat it here.
11.   The Thing (1951 & 1982). Both the Howard Hawks and John Carpenter versions are included here. The original is more cerebral and the horror is left off-screen. Carpenter’s gore is front and center. Both are excellent in their own way and both are scary-scary. Arctic scientists find a spaceship with a frozen alien inside. The alien thaws out and chaos ensues. Great stuff!
                Honorable Mention: Silence of the Lambs (1991). This could be better described as a police thriller rather than horror, but there are parts that are intense as hell and it won an Oscar for chriss’ sake! The early scene where Clarisse is walking past the inmates (including one played by the actor who also played Chef Brockett on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood) until we see Hannibal Lecter for the first time – standing quietly and politely in the center of his cell; watching, as if he knew she were coming. Anthony Hopkins deserved his Oscar. He stole every scene he was in and his character cast his shadow over every scene in which he was not.  The serial killer Buffalo Bill was creepy; Lecter was creepier – and all he did (until his gruesome escape scene) was talk quietly. And stare blankly. And smile sweetly. And suck air between his teeth. The sequels lessened his impact. Forget them.
                Se7en (1995) compares favorably to Silence … it ups the gruesomeness ante, making it more horror than police thriller. A great cast helps – Kevin Spacey hasn’t been this sinister since he played Sonny Steelgrave.
                Movies I have not seen, but probably would be on the list include The Ring (2002) and Paranormal Activity(2007). I’ve heard lots of good stuff about these two in particular. Someday when I have three hours of uninterrupted TV or online-video-streaming time I will give these a chance.
                I feel bad not listing 28 Days Later (2002) and the classic Phantasm (1979), but the former and its sequel I consider more action films (great as they are) dressed as horror and the latter just weird, weird fun! “BOY!!!!”
                Then there are the classics – not as heart-pounding as those on my list, but classics! Without these movies, most of which have aged quite well, I wouldn’t have a subject to discuss. I’m talking about the Universal Monster movies (I include The Black Cat (1934) and White Zombie (1932) here), the American/International Poe pictures (and their ilk) and of course movies from the Hammer Studio. God love you, Hammer Studio.
                These movies are not the horror vein, but are damn scary and want to mention them: Jaws (1975) makes the list of course – you KNOW the plot to Jaws, come on…
                Look for Dead Again (1991) a Hitchcockian thriller that will keep you guessing until the end. I went with my friend Jon (who accompanied me to Event Horizon – see the aforesaid blog about that film) and Peyton to see Dead Again. Here were three fairly seasoned horror/thriller movie goers. Yet one scene was so intense I turned my head and lifted my legs from the theater floor. Jon did a face-palm and said, “Oh God.” Peyton said, “Jeee-sus” and gripped the arms of his seat. The rest of the theater shouted or gasped. It wasn’t gory, but it was the most intense part of the movie – you’ll know it when you see it. That single scene put the movie on this list.
                Some television shows have given me “the creepies” – to quote the character I play in the Sparta Community Chorus’ latest production “Murder in the Magnolias”. Doctor Who’s “Blink” won a Hugo. They don’t give Hugo’s to television shows (do they?). Aliens shaped like angel statues can only move (and attack you) while you are not looking at them. If you turn your head, you’re dead. Blink. The statues come closer. Blink. Closer. Blink. Closer. Absolutely creepy.
                Night Gallery’s “The Cemetery” scared me as a youngster and thrills me to this day. A man murders another to inherit his mansion. On a wall in the mansion is a painting of the house complete with cemetery next door. The killer (Roddy McDowell) walks past the painting (on the staircase landing) – the grave of the man he killed is open. Later, a figure is sitting in the open grave. He walks past the painting later – the figure is climbing out of the grave. Then it is standing next to the grave. Then it walks to the house. It is on the steps. It is at the door. It is knocking on the door. There is a real knock at the door. Is it…? I don’t know if this is intentionally based on a short story by M.R. James – but he wrote a similar tale seventy years before.
                The X-Files’ “Beyond the Sea”. Scully’s father dies and (in an unrelated matter) a shyster-medium is caught. He claims to be able to channel her father. Is he for real? The scene where Scully’s father appears in her house, staring into space and moving his mouth is quite creepy. She gets a phone call that he had died. “But he’s right here sitting on my …” but he is gone. X-Files has a lot of creepy moments like that.
                Maybe I can finally get some sleep tonight. But with all these movies and TV shows running through my head … I can expect another night where I don’t want to open my eyes.
Copyright 2014 Michael G Curry

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Oh God, Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias Act Three

Oh God, Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias, Act Three

                Some bad news this early in – the actor playing Lawyer Possum (Ernie) has left the show. Our director has replaced him – David will be our new Lawyer Possum (I am avoiding last names). I only saw Ernie at the block rehearsal for Act One, Scene Two and never got to meet him or introduce myself.
                Lawyer Possum is the smallest role in the play other than Colonel Rance Chickenwing; but as with the Colonel, it is an important one. They are both the first two victims of this murder mystery. Don’t be upset that I spoiled a “surprise”, c’mon, we’re adults here. It’s a murder mystery – people get murdered. And it is not as if I am telling you who did it. Please remember this is a spoof – even if I did tell you who did it, how and why; it wouldn’t make any sense. And it wouldn’t spoil the enjoyment of a very silly show.
                There is one victim whose death is unexpected, though; I won’t reveal that one. It would spoil some of the fun!
                The two blocking rehearsals went very well. The actors are still learning their lines and cues, but it is coming together. The nuances and ebb and flow of the conversations, arguments and (mostly) non-sequiturs are starting to gel. The physical cues will come after the dialogue is set in our minds. In other words, it’s hard to remember to walk to the fireplace mantel when you are still reading lines from the playbook.
                Let’s meet my characters. I am playing two separate people, one of which has split personalities. So I am playing two characters and four personalities. I believe I will be the only actor or actress in the play that will have a costume change – at least three! I haven’t spoken to the director about a possible fourth costume change for the fourth personality. I think it’s appropriate and I do not mind doing it – there will certainly be enough time in between my scenes to change – I just hope there is a place other than the public bathroom to change!
                Colonel Rance Chickenwing: the patriarch of this little group of misfits. By the time of the play he is seventy-six years old and appears to have emphysema, tuberculosis or some kind of breathing trouble. So far I have not done his voice with a wheeze – I shall have to discuss if the director even cares about that. He is from old antebellum money; but that money seems to have run out some time ago. His father grew lilacs. He was a US Senator for a very brief time. Whether he won an election or was appointed to replace a vacancy is unknown. I would guess the latter. The Colonel seems the type to keep to his friends and family – rarely if ever leaving his home or grounds. He doesn’t seem the type to want to travel the state meeting the great unwashed and kissing their babies.
                If his term was any shorter he would be in the Guinness Book of World Records, Jezebel the housekeeper said. His only activity in the Senate was his bill to make his home, Belle Acres, its own state. If he ran for the seat in an election, he would have made no bones about this being his primary aim. He would not stump about protecting and serving his constituents. He would not have been elected. Not back then anyway, nowadays …
                When his only piece of legislature failed he likely decided not to run for re-election or resigned from the Senate. At least he has his lifetime pension and insurance.
                He drinks at least once per day and chews tobacco.
                By now (and likely as a young man) he is crotchety and angry when not getting his way. He neither suffers fools nor does he like anyone speaking to him as if he were their equal. I doubt he considers very few people his equal.
                He is the lord of his manor and they are a reflection of each other. In these later days he and his manor are crumbling and fading toward its end.
                He loves and cares for his ditsy sister – his closest relative – although he can’t stand to be around her for very long. Jezebel is the only character that stands up to him and matches his wits, so obvious he cannot stand her. If she were a better housekeeper he may have a grudging respect for her and even secretly like her – but I am putting way too much depth in these characters.
                Although the script calls for him to be weak and wrapped in a shawl, I would rather play him as the snappy and snarling lion in winter – still able to slap down foolishness or anyone being too uppity for their station. He dies at the end of the prologue; and it is not until Act One we find out he was murdered.
                He looks like Colonel Sanders. I have the white suit for it and the thick reading glasses. I’ll likely be wearing a string bow tie or bolo and white wig, mustache and goatee. He also wields a cane.
                Thornbird Chickenwing III: a poet in the Tennessee Williams mold. The playbook says he is weak, frail and slightly effeminate. At six-foot-three and over two hundred and fifty pounds I doubt I can play weak and frail. I can do effeminate, but to play full-blown camp doesn’t fit. I think the director agrees with me. At least so far she hasn’t asked me to go all Waylon Flowers …
                He is a poet. Whether he is successful or not is unknown. He doesn’t do anything else for a living so he is either living off his family’s old money or able to live on his writing. How he developed his split personalities is unknown. The play does not say whether he is even aware of his mental illness, so I am playing as if he has no idea. He may be aware of the events witnessed by his “sister” and “great-great-grandfather” when his Thornbird personality returns, but that is unknown. Did he remember his “sister” learning about his inheritance or did he learn it from, say, Bubba? There are no lines in the play indicating what happens when Thornbird transitions from one personality to the next – and I realize I am putting WAY too much thought into this silliest of parts in the silliest of spoofs – but it’s important to me to know how Thornbird would react to things happening to his other personalities.
                Thornbird (mine at least) is dressed in a frock coat – I have a nice tuxedo coat that looks old-fashioned and with some pinning could be very Victorian/steampunk, black pants, spats, and my straw trilby (too big to be a real trilby/too small to be a panama hat). He will have a cane, too. It will have to be different from the Colonel’s. He will also have gold granny glasses with the small rope-like holder going around my neck. 
                I would like a mustache and a small patch betwixt lower lip and chin.
                Thornbird’s sister: They never give her name and she has only 5 lines. She’s done purely for shock value and the playbook says to use a deep (normal) voice. It’s hard not to do a high breathy voice in the scene. I always imagined those Benny Hill skits when he played the Southern Belle.
                I’ll wear a loud dress and carry a parasol and wear a wig. I’ll keep the mustache and beard patch. I hope I can still wear my pants, shoes and spats underneath.  They will be obvious from the audience, but it will work – Thornbird is supposed to be crazy, after all.
                Rufus T. Chickenwing: Amanda and the Colonel’s great-great-grandfather. We only know that Thornbird, Bubba and Blanche are distant, distant, distant cousins of Amanda and Rance. Whether they are all first cousins or some generations removed is unclear and intentionally so. I would guess the younger characters – Thornbird, Bubba & Blanche – are cousins or second cousins to each other, while the older folk – Amanda and Rance – are cousins to the younger set’s parents.
                Rufus is 205 years old and is a poet. One poem was written one line per year and is now up to 183 lines. If using modern dates (as opposed to 1980, when the play was written), this means he started his poem during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.
                Whether Thornbird actually had a sister is unknown, but Rufus was “real” and Thornbird is assuming his persona – as in the great tradition of Teddy from “Arsenic and Old Lace”. Is it normal to assume both real and non-existent people in a multiple personality case?  I’ll let the psychiatrists argue about that one…
                I don’t know what to wear as Rufus yet. Should I put back on the white suit coat of the Colonel’s? Keep the black pants and spats? Using the Colonel’s white wig would be funny – especially making sure it isn’t on correctly and twists and turns throughout the scene.
                Rufus carries, and is attacked by, a bird on his arm. My wife won a giant plush parrot some twenty years ago and we had it displayed in our house. I took it to the first blocking rehearsal as a prop. The director said it was perfect and we can use it in the play. At one point I am behind the couch being attacked by it. This is where twisting the wig around would work.
                But will I look too much like the Colonel? Will anyone think I am the same character but “in disguise”?
                Remember the great movie “Sleuth”? Michael Caine played a detective investigating the disappearance of the main character played by Michael Caine. It was obviously the first character in disguise. His moment of truth was not so thrilling. “Wyke, it is … ME!! Milo Trindle!!”
                “No. It. Cannot. Be. Say. It. Isn’t. So,” chews Laurence Olivier.
                You knew the detective was Michael Caine – you explain it by saying it’s a two-man show, so of course they play separate parts.
                So will people say, “It’s the Colonel” when Thornbird walks on?
                Yes, but I will try to make them separate people – their voices will be different. The Colonel’s voice will be a big-mouthed gruff mountain bark; Thornbird’s a tight-lipped Virginian drawl.
                Fortunately the Colonel does his entire scene sitting, so I don’t have to worry about how they walk or move about.
                I won’t worry about that if no one else does. If anyone says, “I was expecting you to take off your hat and say ‘I was the Colonel all along!’ we can rethink it in later performances.
                After the costumes are firmed up and the blocking done I hope to get some pictures here and on my Facebook page. More news as it develops!
Copyright 2014 Michael G Curry

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Oh God, Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias Act Two

Oh God, Body Grease: Murder in the Magnolias, Act Two
            I was cast to play two roles in the Sparta (IL) Community Chorus’s production of “Murder in the Magnolias”, performed the weekends of February 21st and 28th. On January 2nd we had our first read-through. It was our first chance to meet each other and know who was playing what part.
            Well, first chance I had to meet each other. The rest of the cast knew each other from prior plays and musicals. I met all but two of the cast for the first time.
            There were a lot of chuckles during the read-through. Some of us were looking through the script for the first time – well, if not the first time, it was pretty close – and some of us knew our lines very well.
            I hope I knew most of my lines. I had been reading the script since Christmas day and have been memorizing the ebb and flow of my lines since then. The lines, particularly the Colonel’s, are repetitive. I am either calling something vicious, evil or nasty in every line. I tell my “sister Amanda” to hush up, shut her mouth and listen at various times.  It can be very easy to skip lines.
            When I was in “The Odd Couple” in 1982, we had similar problems. At the end of an act our director told us we were all over the script – even doing lines from other acts yet to come.  It sounded great and no one noticed the repeat performance some minutes later. I’d like to avoid that.
            For example: the Colonel has a line “there’s something in the night air” and later “I have a premonition that something is hovering over my head”. Not identical and barely similar – but the feeling is the same. I could easily get these mixed up.
            The character of Thornbird only has two small soliloquies and his other lines are comments and reactions to other characters. The play is full of things like that – one-up zingers. “Shut my mouth.” “Wish I could.”
            But Thornbird (and others) also have lines like “Are you ailing?” “What’s so unusual about that?”  These require learning the lines before mine to set up verbal cues. “I’ll move the stuffed pig” (don’t ask) is said before my line “what time is Lawyer Possum getting here?” The prior line has nothing to do with mine, so I have to remember when I hear “pig” to ask about Lawyer Possum.
            The insults and zingers are easier to remember because (1) those kinds of lines have a cadence and (2) I enjoy that kind of humor anyway – so the lines are natural to me. “Only a moron would consider that a compliment.” “I ain’t no moron.” “Then it ain’t no compliment.” Or “Black Widow spiders are deadly aren’t they?” “Only when they kill someone.”
            I try to remember certain mnemonics. One of my first lines contained “Whipped ‘em” or WPDM – “That weed pile of yours is a disgusting mess!” VD is vicious and despicable and “Sumsog” is “there’s something unnatural and morbid in that smelly old garden of yours.” I enjoy these memory exercises.
            This is the advertising copy of the play. Oddly, it contains some spoilers but they are necessary to describe the remaining play. Kind of like spoiling the beginning of”Citizen Kane” by saying Kane dies at the beginning.
            Yes, I just compared “Murder in the Magnolias” to “Citizen Kane” …
            What happens when you parody characters and plots from almost every Southern play imaginable, and sprinkle them with the flavor of Gone With the Wind? You get the hilarious Murder in the Magnolias. Colonel Rance Chickenwing has kicked the bucket, leaving the secret of his buried treasure for a houseful of demented relatives to discover. There’s Bubba Kamrowski, who juggles bowling balls in a luncheonette; the delicate Blanche De Blank, whose fiancé drowned in the quarry behind the Veronica Lake Casino; Thornbird, the flaky poet, whose personality is split so many ways, he’s fractured; the cartoonish Lawyer Possum whose only paying client is an alligator. There’s the movie queen, Princess Lotta Kargo, who claims she’s the Colonel’s wife. And Amanda Chickenwing, who attempts to sell subscriptions to the Tudball Tattler. Soon, there’s another death and the mystery at Belle Acres must be solved by Sheriff Billy Jerk. Toss in a prehistoric garden complete with murderous honeysuckle vines, yapping hound dogs, a Voodoo Woman, a menacing hurricane, a suspicious state engineer and a series of devastatingly hilarious “monologues,” and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the fun in this off-the-wall spoof.
“A funny and clever spoof.” – Texas Theatre Week
That’s the party line – er – official description from the playbook and the advertisements.
Some quick written thumbnails of the cast were also found online:
Colonel Rance Chickenwing: Once a US Senator, now aged and difficult
Amanda Chickenwing: His younger sister, daffy & devoted to her strange botanical garden
Jezebel: The housekeeper; slovenly, lazy, inept, outspoken
Voodoo Woman: The local witch
Pet Bogg: A state engineer who must dig up the old plantation
Thornbird Chickenwing III: A Southern writer whose personality is split so many ways he’s fractured.
Bubba Kamrowski: Juggles bowling balls in a luncheonette; en expert in Napoleonic law
Lorraine Carruthers: Social secretary to Princess Kargo; an intelligent young woman
Lawyer Possum: Has an alligator for a client
Princess Lotta Kargo: Flamboyant, theatrical and, maybe, off her rocker
Sheriff Billy Jerk: The biggest man in TudballCounty
Blanche Du Blank: A Southern belle, slightly cracked.

And now the cast – from the Facebook page of the director … (no last names ere used to protect the innocent – I know eventually our last names will be in programs and – hopefully – favorable reviews; but for now … )
Colonel Rance Chickenwing  – Mike (me)
Amanda Chickenwing – Erica

Jezebel – Mary 

Voodoo Woman – Heidi 

Pete Bogg – Brad

Thornbird Chickenwing III – Mike (me) 
Bubba Kamrowski – Ryan
Lorraine Carruthers – Amy  
Lawyer Possum – Ernest
Princess Lotta Kargo – Debbie
Sheriff Billy Jerk – John

Blanche Du Blank – Britney
            At the first read-through, some of the cast were absent either by permission or with the pandemic flu going around. I, Erica, Mary, Heidi, Brad, Ryan and Amy were there. Everyone read through their lines splendidly.
            Erica is the big kahuna of the Sparta Community Chorus – the president or board chairman, I can’t remember specifically. We have the most lines together.
            Mary was going to try out for a role in the 1982 production of “Oklahoma” I was in, but she was expecting a child at the time. She said she gave birth to her daughter on one of the performance dates. I said that was too bad. Imagine the laughs of a nine-month pregnant Ado Annie singing “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No”.
            Debbie was in “Oklahoma” with me back in 1982. Well, she didn’t perform, but did play the piano during rehearsals and was the “orchestra leader”. I recognized her and remembered her as the evening wore on. She’s already playing her part with hilarious zeal.
            Heidi and Amy are going to be an excellent Voodoo Woman and Lorraine. Heidi enjoyed the over-the-top cackling and Lorraine (if the read-through is any indication) will play it with a nervous fluster. She and the character Pete Bogg are the only sane characters in the play.
            Ryan is taller than I am (and I’m 6’3”) and will make a fine Bubba. I suspect he is less than half my age – a man young enough to be my son is playing my childhood bully…
            Brad grew up a few blocks north of me. I am older than him by four years – a geologic time when it comes to childhood. It was the first time I got to meet him as an adult. It was nice catching up with him even for only a few minutes before the read-through. Who would have thought three kids from the Cobbler’s Knob section of Coulterville would be part of a play thirty-plus years later? Must be something in the water.
            Fifteen more rehearsals to go. More news as it develops…
Original Material Copyright 2013 Michael G Curry

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Oh God, Body Grease! Murder in the Magnolias, Act One

Oh God, Body Grease! “Murder in the Magnolias”, Act One
                In 1981 our high school drama club selected “Murder in the Magnolias” as their spring play. It was written in 1980 by Tim Kelly and is a spoof of “Southern plays” – Tennessee Williams and his ilk.
                I tried out for and was cast as Thornbird Chickenwing III, a Tennessee Williams-like poet who has multiple personalities. It is recommended by the author that he is played slightly effeminate. In one scene he is in drag, playing his own sister; and in another his grandfather’s grandfather.
                “Murder in the Magnolias” is appropriately silly with lots of caricatures insulting each other. The humor is broad and slapstick is present but fitting – hopefully it won’t be too over-the-top. Most of the humor comes from the characters verbally one-upping each other (“…any fool knows that.” “You know it…”). Very few characters possess any reason or common sense.
                It is a murder mystery. The mystery is not only who did it, but also is how can this motley crew of morons and locos identify the killer before anyone else drops off. And bodies drop in every act. Part of the fun in being in the audience is guessing who is next as well as who dunnit.
                We never got to perform the play in 1981. Our director, the art teacher, was fresh out of college and only about four years younger than the oldest of us. She was a very sweet lady but unable to handle the rougher students. She didn’t know how to crack the whip. That’s important when trying to herd students.
                But the students in the drama club weren’t the ones taking advantage of her meekness. The students who really gave her trouble were the ones waiting for our sixteenth birthday so we could leave school and get working at jobs we’d have the rest of our lives. You could do that back then.
                There was another problem that finally put the fatal wound in our production.
                Being of that age, the student cast had hormones a-ragin’. When one cast member was done with his part, he whisked himself away to his girlfriend’s house in another town. More than once the director wanted to rehearse the scene again, but the principal player of the scene was basking in the glow of love.
                The lead was replaced with another girl (I’m not being a pig here – we’re dealing with fifteen and sixteen-year-olds – hence “girls” and “boys”…). Why she left I do not remember. Trouble was the replacement had just won a fierce battle with the other female lead over rightful possession of a boyfriend. The two former female leads were best friends. The replacement not only “stole” the boyfriend of one cast member, but replaced that cast member’s friend in the play. Fur flew.
                And our meek director was powerless to knock heads together and douse everyone with cold water. With less than a month to go half the cast walked out. We remaining cast discussed putting on a play of small skits we would write ourselves. I didn’t think it would be very successful or funny so I left too. A few of the walk-outs were sitting on some sidewalk steps near the school and I congratulated them on their courage – they left the sinking ship just in time.
                No play that year.
                Flash forward almost 33 years. My friend Stephanie announced on her Facebook page that the Sparta (Illinois) Community Chorus was putting on “Murder in the Magnolias” as their spring play and they were holding open auditions December 14th.
                “I still have the playbook,” I posted.
                “You should try out,” Stephanie said.
                “I don’t think the dress in Act Two would fit me anymore,” I said.
                I thought seriously about it, talked it over with my wife and decided to try out for a part. A small part.
                After high school the only acting I did was for a local children’s program produced by the PBS affiliate. I wrote for the show and was asked to play the part of the evil Count Puzzleton during the show’s pledge-break extravaganza. I agreed. As was the case with most local PBS productions – it was cheesy and over-acted. But I had a lot of fun!
                I was a DJ for ten years and did some stand-up in Springfield, IL. The little stand-up I did in Carbondale was from introducing the main act at the city’s “comedy club” (read: bar with a stage and microphone – I think the biggest talent we got to perform there was Emo Phillips. No slight to Emo, he’s very funny, but that was the biggest name we drew).
                So aside from a few personas, imitations and performances of “skits” during commercials (“Gee, Jane, this coffee tastes like shit.” “He never talks about my coffee that way at home…” “Then try new Folger’s Carcinogenic…”); I haven’t acted since 1986. And even that was on television where I could do it take after take if we goofed up.
                As a lawyer I “act” in court, I suppose. Sometimes a bit of faux outrage or an ad-libbed quip can save the day (this bit is part of a legal record of a case; I am quite proud of it: Judge: “This was filed last night at 8:00, (turns to me) Counsel have you had a chance to review this?” Me: “Your honor, I have a ten-month old baby at home, I was asleep by eight – I was in bed by ten…”).
                The last time I trod the boards was in 1982 as Felix Unger in “The Odd Couple” – my senior year with the Coulterville High School Drama Club.
                At that same time I played an extra (George) in the SpartaCommunity Chorus (it was called something else back then) in “Oklahoma”. I had one line – “sounded like a shot” and danced in the fantasy sequence. OK! Yow!
                December 14th was the day of my family’s Christmas party. That evening my wife and I went to Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis to watch the Symphony perform Mannheim Steamroller’s Christmas. I wouldn’t be able to sneak in an audition that day.
                No problem, said Stephanie, you can audition the next day, the 15th. There are a few others auditioning that day as well. And so I agreed to audition. My daughter stayed overnight at my sister’s while we went to the concert; and Sunday morning it was back to Coulterville to pick her up; then to Sparta to audition.
                I last saw Stephanie in 1996 at the hospital at which she worked when my father was admitted there – otherwise I had not seen her since 1982 (Facebook pics aside). She is a year younger than I and we lived across the street from one another. I’ve known her since our toddlerdom. It was wonderful to see her again.
                At the audition, I tried out for two of the smaller parts – Colonel Rance Chickenwing – the Big Daddy of the play and its first victim – and Thornbird. When I was done reading, my daughter piped out from the audience in her four-year-old voice, “Are you done, Daddy?”
                “Everyone’s a critic,” I told the four judges, two of whom were Stephanie and her adult daughter. They all laughed. When I was done they asked if I was willing to do two roles, as the number of men auditioning was small.
                “Sure,” I said with more confidence that I would have had if I thought about it. They gave me a copy of the playbook – in much better shape than my original – and thanked me. I was hopeful – they wouldn’t give me a playbook if they didn’t intend for me to be in it, would they?
                We drove seventy miles to our house; my wife put my daughter down for her nap and I stayed outside to repair the Christmas lights that had been savaged by a snowstorm of a few days before. When I went inside my wife said Stephanie had called – I had been cast as Rance AND Thornbird!
                Why? Why do I want to do this? Why drive seventy miles one-way two or three times a week and leave my wife and four-year-old alone all evening?
                I could be cavalier and say it is because I am a big ham and love the sounds of applause, but it is more than that.
                Perhaps it is a bit of mid-life crisis. Instead of buying a Harley or a canoe, I perform in a play.
Perhaps it is something from my past that was left incomplete and I want closure. But it’s not as if cancelling the play in 1981 scarred me for life.
                Perhaps it is a little of both… plus …
                I’m doing it to give me something fun to do. To meet some old friends and make some new ones.
                My work is challenging – I’m not doing this to escape work drudgery – but there is a sameness to it and being in a silly play will help me escape that a while. For the past four years it has been me, my wife and the baby. The baby is starting to get older and has her little friends at the day care; my wife sings in the choir in church and during Christmas and Easter practices with them. This would be … my thing to do.
                I knew I would have sympathetic audition judges – I had practiced these lines during the first few months of the Reagan administration and knew the play – and that gave me the courage to want to do it. I don’t jump into anything with both feet – I’m definitely the kind to stick my toe in first.
                Will this lead to more? If it works out, I hope so. It would be fun to be in more plays and musicals. Either in Sparta or (gasp) locally. It could be the start of a fun hobby.
                Future blogs in the next few months will review the characters and update on how rehearsals are going, etc.
                When I first considered trying out and performing in the play; I said it could be a lot of fun.
                Or it could be murder…
Copyright 2014 Michael G Curry

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