In praise of disgusting theater

Production

The audible “UGH” from the seats behind me as the performer had the first of many playing cards stapled directly to his torso let me know I was in the right place. I had come to see Carnival of Souls with the single purpose of seeing a show that pushed my boundaries of comfort. In addition to staples, we were witnesses to plenty of other freak/geek show attractions in this 2012 Fringe show. Long needles driven through the performer’s skin. Laying on a bed of samurai swords. Razor blade eating.

The show was both lauded and panned by the Fringe audience reviews. “One hour of total misery” read one, while another (this one rather positive) began “I can’t imagine neutral reactions to this show.” The critique that sticks with me though, is the review (zero stars out of five) that begins “I was thoroughly disgusted by this production.”

Despite the negativity of that review, it that made me think Carnival of Souls director Joe Lyon was onto something. I think about that show a lot, because it was able to bring out a visceral reaction from the audience. When the Playlist Facebook page recently asked for things that people want to see on Twin Cities’ stages in the new year, my thoughts came back to this Fringe show. The first thing that came to mind was that it might be nice to be disgusted once in a while.

I don’t expect circus sideshows to catch on as the new trend, but there’s something to be said for that gut reaction. So, what is the appeal of the disgusting moment on stage? Theater, as has been stated many times, is a unique art form due to its immediacy and intimacy. It is a direct human connection happening in real time. The disgusting moment can have an alienating effect, as it did for several audience members at Carnival. In other contexts, disgust has the effect of bringing audience and artist closer together.

There are moments in Open Eye Figure Theatre’s 2012 production A Hole that could qualify as simultaneously disgusting and heartbreaking. A key section of the story tells of a family dog that is put down by the patriarch of the family. The audience shares the grief of the man as he buries the dog, as a rain begins to fall. Later, we are treated to a puppet show with what remains of the dog (a fleshy bone tied to a string). On the surface, the thought of this creature and its recent suffering could make the audience sick, but the simple playing and story we see makes us forget for a moment and we can share in these feelings of loss and redemption. In this instance, the disgust is tempered by surrounding it with a story that is sympathetic for the audience.

What made both of the above examples work was the human connection. In the case of Carnival of Souls, it was the enthusiasm of the performers. While many in the audience were put off by the sideshow tricks of self-inflicted pain, the performers themselves seemed to relish every squirm they could detect in the seats. To me, it had a similar effect to a comic actor telling a particularly bad pun - the groans from the audience just added fuel to the fire. Those who weren’t looking away, hands in front of their eyes, were developing a rapport with the performers. With A Hole, it was the stage presence of the show’s main character and puppeteer, Michael Sommers. Mixing disgust with humor and pathos, an expert storyteller can get away with a lot of bad behavior. The Open Eye space, a promenade-style show, and Sommers’ strengths in crafting delicate moments had us literally following his every word. We would feel contempt or disgust for the character’s actions one minute, and then have to hold back a few tears for him the next.

There’s also the disgusting moment that seems to be (f)art for (f)art’s sake. Perhaps a good example would be the insult comic, or a bouffon-style clown show. One such show rolled into the Twin Cities a few years ago (and you can still catch it on tour or in its native Brooklyn from time to time) called Bouffon Glass Menajoree. The show, as the title implies, is a parody of the Tennessee Williams classic about the Wingfield family and a gentleman caller, with the actors replaced by bouffon clowns. The show’s director, Eric Davis, explains: “Grotesque in nature, often physically deformed, the bouffon is the outcast shunned by society and told to live outside the village. On rare occasions, they are asked to perform… Thus, these hideous creatures enter the circle of society once more, light on their feet, eternally smiling with hateful eyes.” When Bedlam hosted this show, I wasn’t sure what I was signing up for. The actors insulted the audience, tossed beer cans, made various rude gestures – when not directed at you, it was hilarious. The added twist: Jim, the gentlemen caller, is performed by a volunteer from the audience each night. Poor guy!

It’s been noted that there aren’t many acts like this native to the Twin Cities. Some might point to the usual suspects, like us being so “Minnesota Nice” that we’re afraid to hurt anyone’s sensibilities, or the Twin Cities not being big enough to support this particular niche like Chicago, New York or L.A. can. I think we can be rude if we want to; you just have to know where to look. Acts like Vilification Tennis or the character of Herschel Douscheburg, played by Sam Landman in last year’s Fringe show A Sad Carousel, for instance. Performance artists like Samantha Johns, George McConnell and Paige Collette, who aren’t afraid to drink a little Windex or eat a few boxes of Twinkies onstage, are very popular in town. I mean it in the best possible way when I say grotesque, foul-mouthed, excessive, disgusting theater is all around us!

When working on a new show, I am drawn towards creating moments that will hopefully elicit a visceral, gut reaction. To me, theater is at its best when it is an immersive event, taking the audience through a range of emotions. I seek out ways to create moments that can throw an audience off balance, to possibly forget their sympathy for a given character, or to redeem their faith in another. Disgust is one way to do it.