Jenn Morse, Tom Hewitt and Amy Rutbergin Dracula, The Musical(Photo: J.T. MacMillan)
Jenn Morse, Tom Hewitt and Amy Rutberg
in Dracula, The Musical
(Photo: J.T. MacMillan)
As Halloween approaches, audiences will be knocking on the doors of theater groups throughout the country and filling up their pillowcases with goodies. From San Fran Grand Guignol to Lone Star zombies to the triumphant resurrection of Xanadu in (where else?) sunny, daffy Los Angeles, here is a look at some of what's going on theatrically over the next several weeks.

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HOLY ROLLERS

It's a strange concept, even for Los Angeles. Xanadu is the infamous 1980 movie musical in which a beautiful Greek muse (played by Olivia Newton-John, of course) descends to Earth to help a man open a roller rink (of course). If there's anything more unlikely than that plot, it's Xanadu Live, a stage version newly opened at the Gascon Center Theater in Culver City.

"We are lip-synching everything--the whole show," says star Cheryl Lynn Bowers of Xanadu Live, the idea of which originated at the Williamstown Theater Festival last year. "It's such a classic soundtrack, it would almost be sacrilege to try and sing it. We're not trying to spoof Xanadu or put a crazy twist on it; we're just committed to doing a live version of the film."

Bowers makes it clear that audiences won't see her playing Kira, the heaven-sent lovely of the film; they'll see her playing Newton-John playing Kira. "I wouldn't say that I'm a roller skater at all, but you watch the film and you can sort of tell that Olivia Newton-John is not a roller skater at all," Bowers (ahem) muses. "Definitely, Cheryl Lynn Bowers herself is a klutz, but I hope that's just part of the charm--me running into things."

The Xanadu Live producers, onetime Caroline in the City co-star Amy Pietz and her hubby, actor Kenneth Alan Williams, are hoping to pack the Gascon with old-school Xanadu fans--many of whom apparently harbor an uncanny, Rocky Horror-like obsession with the flick--as well as curious newcomers to the campy classic. Hopefully they'll all like it as much as Bowers, who says, "This is the most fun I've ever had in my entire life."

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SHAKESPEARE IN THE HEARTLAND

Having just wrapped a well reviewed Gypsy, St. Louis Repertory Theater shifts its focus from Mama Rose to an equally powerful personality: King Lear goes up on Friday October 12. Meanwhile, in its more intimate Studio Theater, the Rep is preparing to air God's Man in Texas, a distinctly Lear-ian morality tale by Los Angeleno David Rambo.

Doth this mark a trend? It seems like the Gateway City is getting Barded-up big time these days. In June, P. J. Paparelli of the Washington Shakespeare Company came to town to direct Romeo and Juliet--the first production of the brand new Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis--in beautiful Forest Park (which, for all you public-land trivia buffs, is the largest municipal park in the country). Meanwhile, over at the Grandel Theater, the 17-year-old St. Louis Shakespeare Company is in rehearsal for Twelfth Night, set to opening in November. There'll be a second Twelfth Night (does that amount to Twenty-Fourth Night?) at Washington University's Edison Theater come February.

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GHOULISH DELIGHTS

Shakespeare's ghost isn't the only shade prowling America's theatrical ramparts these days: Halloween is on the horizon and companies are digging up their most spooktakular productions, with treats for young'uns and grown-ups alike. Down in Atlanta, it's time for the second annual Spooky Puppet Horror Show at the Center for Puppetry Arts, October 18-28. A very special performance on the 25th, sponsored by the Atlanta Brewing Company and featuring a concoction called "Laughing Skull," will bring together the worlds of puppetry and beer tasting.

Over in Dallas, there are at least two terrifying treats on view. One is the Pocket Sandwich Theatre's Zombie, Dearest: The Caper of the Living Dead (through November 17). Across town is the Dallas Children's Theater's Gatherings in Graveyards (October 13 through November 4), a staging of stories by W.W. Jacobs, Ambrose Bierce, and Edgar Allan Poe. As many other theater companies have discovered over the years--not to mention people like John Astin (Once Upon a Midnight) and John Matthews (Nevermore: An Evening With Poe), who have presented one-man Poe shows in various parts of the country--The Tell-Tale Heart makes for a bone-chilling monologue.

In Kentucky, the Actors Theater of Louisville is celebrating the Halloween season as it always does with its in-house version of Dracula (through November 4), an annual audience-pleaser and a real spectacle--dark, brooding, and genuinely creepy. If you prefer Transylvanians who can carry a tune, you might head out to the San Diego area's La Jolla Playhouse for the world premiere of Dracula the Musical (October 11--November 25); the show features music by Frank Wildhorn, whose past monster musical credit is Jekyll & Hyde.

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A scene from Kiss of Blood(Photo: David Allen)
A scene from Kiss of Blood
(Photo: David Allen)
GORE MEISTER

"It's like being thrilled in a football stadium--it's an intense emotion." That's Russell Blackwood of San Francisco's Thrillmongers--whose "pageant of terror and titillation," Shocktoberfest 2001: Carnival of Hallucinations, opened on October 4 and runs through mid-November--on the singular joy of being terrified at the theater. "If you're going to be scared," Blackwood figures, "How great to be scared with other people! And how great to be scared by people you've paid to scare you."

The Thrillmongers are a decade-old company rooted in the traditions of the Grand Guignol, a late 19th century French vaudeville movement that (according to my handy Cambridge A History of the Theater) "specialized in the sado-masochistic pleasures of horror, pain and terror." Yummy! Blackwood and his collaborator, Daniel Zilber, freely update the wildly gruesome Guignol scripts. Shocktoberfest includes two that were never before staged in the U.S., Maker of Monsters and Kiss of Blood, plus Zilber's new play The Torture of Cavaradossi. That's the terror; the titillation comes from Barefoot Beauties, a burlesque treat celebrating foot fetishism: "Twenty toes...twenty reasons to sit in the front row!"

Still, for Blackwood, horror is the star of the show. "For some reason, bloodletting on stage--the trickery of the whole thing--is so great," he enthuses. "Just the sleight of hand that it takes to pull off a stabbing or an eye-gouging inspires me. So much of what I see on stage in modern plays seems mundane, but there's nothing mundane about having your eye gouged out." Maybe you don't want to sit in the front row after all.