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From ghostly to gothic to goofy, theater artists celebrate the season

Exal Iraheta grew up listening to tales from Central American mythology. “The stories, kind of like Grimms’ fairy tales did in Europe, didn’t shy away from real danger,” the playwright, screenwriter, and School of the Art Institute alum recalled. “For me, I’ve always thought of horror and scary stories as a way of releasing something, or experiencing life from a different perspective.”

A different perspective is precisely what theater artists looking to stage seasonally spooky shows are getting this Halloween. In this Our Year of WTF-Even-Is-This-Anymore Conflagration of Terrestrial Hellscapery, the theatrical offerings leading up to Halloween/Samhain/Day of the Dead are a regular night gallery of creature features gamely determined to send the good kind of creepy shiver down your spine. But in a year when terror is rather the norm or at least increasingly normalized—be it the relentless edge-of-a-cliff anxiety of being unemployed or the constant awareness that one sneeze from a stranger could literally kill you—Halloween shows are hitting a bit different.

For artists like Iraheta, crafting seasonal shows in a climate already steeped in fear is about dealing with both the fictitious terror and the IRL context it’s playing to. His short play Date From Hell takes the stage in Random Acts Chicago’s Scary Stories: Dark Web. The on-demand stream plays October 16-31. Random Acts’ short film series, Random Acts of Horror, gets an encore livestream October 21 at 8 PM, with other content (including their variety show, Freak Show Cabaret) streaming October 26, also at 8 PM. (All Random Acts programs are available through the company’s YouTube and Facebook pages for a $5 suggested donation.)

“My story is about a person trying to meet someone online. I think it speaks to loneliness we’re all experiencing in quarantine—I’m so lucky I’m quarantining with my husband, but I see that loneliness everywhere. There’s like this hovering need to connect, you’re left asking so much sometimes: Who are we really meeting and talking to on the other side of that screen? How is this changing how we see relationships in general?” Iraheta said.

My (lead) character gets the chance to do a video date—which turns out not to be the best idea,” Iraheta said.

 Other Chicago artists are leaning into the gothic. Among the best eerie podcasts ripe for consumption, there’s HartLife’s Unwell, which plays like a cross between Dark Shadows and A Prairie Home Companion, without the soap-opera cheese of the former or the treacly folksiness of the latter.

The Ohio-set story of a prodigal daughter who returns to a hometown that’s decidedly creepier than she remembers stars Chicago’s Shariba Rivers and features a writing crew that includes Bilal Dardai, Jessica Wright, Jessica Best, and story director Jim McDoniel. Two dozen episodes comprise the first two seasons, with a third slated to drop in January.

“We found ourselves being careful about how dark we wanted to go. We don’t shy away from the possibilities of death and murder, but we never wanted to do bleak,” Dardai said. “There’s a certain brightness to Unwell. There’s the gothic parts which are eerie and macabre and occasionally full of horror. But there’s also the—for lack of a better word—kind of the midwestern part, which is down to earth and all about human connections. I feel like part of the reason our audience is so devoted is because they get the thrills and chills, but they are also able to be completely invested in the characters and their relationships.” 

Investment is also the nexus of the PlayMakers Laboratory ensemble (formerly Barrel of Monkeys). For 23 years, the company has coached generations of Chicago’s schoolchildren to craft short stories, poems, songs, and plays that Lab teaching artists then perform and produce professionally. This year, the Lab teaching artists have been working remotely, guiding roughly 20 third-to-fifth graders toward creating the tales of That’s Weird Grandma: House Par-tay!, running through November 30. Even under the challenging circumstances of working remotely, the Lab remains true to its guiding principle: “No idea is a bad idea,” said artistic director and teaching artist Brandon Cloyd. “If we’re talking about serious characters and somebody starts joking around about Poops McGee, we won’t tell them to be quiet. We’ll ask about who Poops is.”

Agatha’s Eggsitential Conundrum is one of my favorites,” he added. “It’s about a witch having trouble making an egg salad sandwich. And then a dog steals the sandwich.” Literally, the skit is (obviously) objectively hilarious. Metaphorically, it’s the kind of universal experience  kids give voice to so plainly, this year above all perhaps. We’ve surely all been there: wrestling something into compliance, only to see it fall into oblivion.

“The trends we tend to see with our scary stories typically deal with the police and gun violence,” Cloyd said. The students also have an ear toward pop culture, particularly when it comes to Jordan Peele and Nia DaCosta’s twice-delayed-because-COVID reboot of Candyman. The urban legend about a supernatural slasher ghost who haunts the Cabrini-Green housing projects was initially made into a movie in 1992. The remake is slated for release in 2021. “Candyman still feels relevant to these kids, even though most of them weren’t even born when it first came out,” Cloyd said.

But there’s more on their minds than urban legends, he added. “The most common theme I’ve seen in my 15 years is plays about recycling and climate change. They’re acutely aware of that. We had a dance routine with a voice-over of Greta Thunberg. But honestly our biggest hope right now is just to have a fun, exciting distraction.”  v

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