A peek behind the curtain of Ithaca’s most bizarre play

Elias Olsen/The Ithacan
Cast members of "Celebration!" rehearse the first act, "Birthday." The act depicts a woman, covered in fake blood, giving birth and a sadistic doctor beating and slapping babies.

It is the sound of nails against a chalkboard. The taste of curdled milk and the sour feeling in the pit of your stomach before entering a funeral home. Except this is your funeral, and everyone you’ve ever met is inside, smiling.

Tragedy is alive in the room. It thrives in the room, in the form of the FREAKOUT, and it begins with a scream. It is yellow, blue, white lights flashing rapidly in 360 degrees. It is sexual moans, groans, grunts. It is maniacal laughter.

Of all things sarcastic and sardonic, of all things reckless and radical, of all things macabre — this is the celebration.

Sunday, April 22 | 4:48 p.m. | Circle Apartments

Baking cocoa, light corn syrup, Nesquik, tempera poster paint (red), tempera poster paint (black), cornstarch powder and red food dye.

A blue painting tarp is sprawled across the living room carpet in Circle 131-03. A Twiddle album is playing on the turntable, and the kitchen (?!) ingredients are scattered in the center of the tarp.

A crimson bowl with a Guy Fieri–brand whisk sits in front of a cross-legged Matt Porter. He’s gazing down into the center of the bowl as he watches the clear corn syrup sway.

He’s preparing edible blood for “Celebration!,” the theater production he pitched, wrote and directed as part of the Macabre Theatre Ensemble. It’s set to run in five days, and the show’s rehearsals have been lacking one of the main elements: Blood.

He jumps up from the tarp and runs to the kitchen to get more cornstarch. On the other side of the room, one of his flatmates, Alistair Bennie-Underwood, sits on the Couchboat, a combination of the three uncomfortable, cum-stained Ithaca College sofas with raggedy threads. His chin points up, and he looks over the edge of the couch at the bowl of blood on the floor. He nods once and resumes using his phone.

“How about that color?” In one swift motion, Matt shoves his index finger into the bowl and slides the red hue across his tongue. “mMMMh,” he groans. It tastes of liquefied cocoa, but then he makes a sour face as the aftertaste of corn syrup slides down his throat. He nods approvingly, and although he was following directions from a third-party website via his Macbook, he shuts it, snags the cornstarch powder and recklessly pours more in to thicken the syrup.

“I’m gonna make three types of blood,” he explains. “We’re gonna decorate props with vampire blood” — he gestures to the plastic red bottle with the same name — “We’re gonna use watered-down red liquid for when we need a lot of blood in scenes, like when people are coated in it” — he looks at the Hawaiian Punch — “And then, this is for like, more … intimate areas?” He snickers, stirring the extra cornstarch powder. “Like, for areas around the mouth or on the face, so just in case they swallow it, it’s, you know, fine.”

Matt pours the wine-tinted liquid into a half-gallon milk container, scrawling “EDIBLE blüd” on the front panel.

“Remember,” he offers, “to whisk vigorously for 15 seconds.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 | 7 p.m. | Friends Hall, Room 207

“So I’ve experienced this a lot, at Ithaca College specifically, but the amount of times I had to hear somebody say, ‘I know art is supposed to make you uncomfortable, but…’ is really irritating,” Matt said, standing in front of the six Ithaca College students that made up the Macabre Theater Ensemble e-board. About 20 other members and first-timers sat in surrounding chairs.

Sophomore Jacob Sullivan delivers a monologue during a rehearsal for the fourth and final act, “Graduation Day.” (Elias Olsen/The Ithacan)

“So I decided to write a play where the goal was to make the audience uncomfortable. It’s an experimental theater piece that references my last performance art piece with Macabre.”

Two years ago, Macabre performed a wacky, violent Thanksgiving dinner scene at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art. Matt wrote it. This was the beginning of a series of vignettes that would later evolve into the four acts of “Celebration!”

Each act, he explained, would signify a celebratory event with some sick, violent twist. Some characters would overlap, but the FREAKOUT — a moment of chaos, flashing lights and disorienting noises, where all the characters would appear —would provide some transitions between each act, as would a narrator. And the show, he said, would be performed around the audience, so they’re surrounded by the action.

That evening, each potential director for the Spring semester was expected to present their show proposal to the Ensemble. Once all presentations concluded, the group voted on the shows for their Spring 2018 season.

But there were only four shows pitched: the total number needed for a full semester. Voting didn’t happen. Coincidentally, the e-board was in favor of Matt’s idea.

The script was finished in mid-February:

Act I: Birthday

Act II: Valentine’s Day

Act III: Easter

Act IV: Commencement

Monday, March 5 | 7:00 p.m. | Iger Lecture Hall, James J. Whalen Center for Music

The tension in the towering music classroom is broken by bright smiles and familiar faces. Alex Smith, the production manager of “Celebration!” sits silently in their seat, watching actors stream into the room.

Matt taps his foot — a tick that helps him appear cool and collected. He’s anticipating more people to show up, they will, they’re probably just late, but then he counts the total 21 individuals, sees it’s 10 past, and figures it’s time to begin regardless of the size. Judging by the small group, he’s already decided that all of these people have to be cast, and most of them will have multiple roles.

Kara Bowen and her friend, Julia Hurlburt, find seats in the center of the seating area.

This is nothing new for either of them: Julia worked backstage in the “Rocky Horror Picture Show” last October. Kara’s been participating in IC Second Stage since she came to college. She’s been theatrical since she popped out of the womb.

Still, Julia didn’t want to audition alone, so Kara saw it as an opportunity. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“Hey, guys, thanks for coming out,” Matt says. He passes around a consent form so the actors have a better understanding of the show.

Celebration! contains material that many viewers may find offensive and some may find triggering. These include but are not limited to:

Flashing Lights/Loud, Disorienting Noises

Child Abuse

Full and Partial Nudity

Spousal Abuse/Representation of Abusive Relationships

Vile, Sexual Perversions

Bullying

Bodily Mutilation

Cannibalism

Filicide

Suicide

References to Minnesota

Drugs

Misrepresentation of Institutional Racism

Extremely Sacrilegious Material

Staged Depictions of Torture

Extreme Violence

Staged Depictions of Masturbation

Bestiality

Horrifying Truths

A Pessimistic View of the Future

War

The Forced Infantilization of Adults

The Use of a Prop Gun

Kara’s eyes scan the list quickly, pausing at Minnesota and Infantilization of Adults. She laughs to herself.

“Cool. Once you read and sign these, I’m going to read each role, and if you’re interested in auditioning, you can come up,” Matt says. “Whoever wants to read for this role can, regardless of who you are.”

He begins by reading Deborah’s bio. “Married to PAUL, must be comfortable being partially nude on stage, a whore, likes to slap lunch meats.”

Snorts and awkward laughter are heard from the audience. Kara rises from her seat, a smile on her face. She takes a scene sheet with some of Deborah’s dialogue from Alex Smith and tries to resist the urge to look down immediately, but when she does, one line jumps out at her:

DEB:   Oh, Paul! Plow my sticky moist-spot with your bologna!

She stands in front of the crowd. The others who joined her have already read their lines as Deborah. It was her turn. All eyes are on her.

It was then that something shifted. A change. An acceptance. A shot at something new, something weird. A disregard for future consequences.

Without any sense of concern, Kara begins with her most raunchy voice possible, gesturing to her crotch when she reads, “I feel like we never get to get down and get filthy.” She’s knocking laughter out of audience members, most of whom will be actors three weeks later. Matt’s grinning the whole time. She’s ready for a wild ride.

Saturday, April 14 | 3:54 p.m. | Job Hall, Room 220

Twelve chairs with puke-green backing are lined against one side of the classroom. Four students stare blankly at Alex Smith, who is too uncomfortable to speak. Their short, brown, hair curls against the sides of their cheeks.

Sophomore Alex Bird acts as The Doctor, preparing to deliver a baby with gloves and power tools. (Maxine Hansford/The Ithacan)

Alex Bird, a large man whose rarely spotted in anything other than striped shirts, anxiously walks into the room, sitting in the back row of seats. He runs his fingers through his blue-tinged hair. Only a month ago, Bird found out he was going to be playing the Doctor, who, to his pleasure, is punching babies by the end of the first page of the script.

But Bird doesn’t know anyone in the ensemble. He has a vague grasp on acting techniques, from classes he’s taken at Ithaca. But this is the first time he’s done anything with Macabre. It’s his first step — in his Italian black leather shoes — onto the acting scene.

As more actors stream into the classroom, the chairs fill, saturating the space with a dull murmur. Matt takes attendance, announcing that Jake Sullivan (Paul, the crackhead, one of the most verbally abusive characters in the show) — will not be coming in until 5 p.m.

“Let’s all share what’s some bullshit today.” His eyes instantly link with Zach Randall’s.

“I’ve just kind of had a shitty week,” Zach says. “I think life is some bullshit. Fifty shades of this shitty week.” He’s actually never attended the college, but he somehow made his way into the Macabre Theater Ensemble after he graduated from Tompkins Cortland Community College. His eyes are crusty, tired, and his eyebrow hairs are tangled in one another. He wears an oversized black hoodie.

“You don’t even go here,” Matt retorts.

“Shhhh.”

The actors form a circle on the floor and begin stretching. Bird is perched next to Shoshi Fleury, who has bright pink hair, who sits next to Ariella Ranz, who has tangerine hair. The clock strikes 4:20 p.m., and no joke is made. A doleful loss.

Five minutes later, everyone pushes the chairs against the back wall in the room so they have space to rehearse. “We have two weeks till the show,” Matt announces. “No scripts on Sunday.”

Shoshi’s eyes widen. “Oh, shit.”

“Y’all can still call ‘line,’ though.”

She falls silent, and her eyes land on the floor. She plays it cool, but she feels like she has appendicitis.

Shoshi knows the ropes at this point: She jumped into Macabre at the beginning of last semester when she nailed her audition for Riff Raff in “Rocky Horror.” She’s tight with this crew. She doesn’t fear getting completely naked in front of them, or anyone, for that matter. She’s not afraid of being power-tooled to the cross, nor getting splattered head to toe with blüd. But forgetting her lines? Terrifying.

Ariella and Shoshi exchange a concerned glance.

The group starts rehearsing the final act: A graduation scene where each graduate is either mutilated or attacked.

Matt is direct and slightly aggressive but coats his words with a “layer of chill.” He’s describing how the characters should feel violated by the end of the show.

Alex Smith rolls their eyes as they watch all the characters join hands in a circle, sway back and forth and sing an off-key version of “Kumbaya.”

Sunday, April 15, 2018 | 2:10 p.m. | Friends Hall, Room 308

Matt says they’re doing rehearsals for the first scream of the show. It’s the sound that triggers it all: The first FREAKOUT, the first act. The actors line up against the wall, taking turns frantically screaming at the top of their lungs.

Actors pose during the final scene as graduates preparing to accept their diplomas. (Maxine Hansford/The Ithacan)

While Shoshi belts out a jaw-clenching scream, a tour group from Ithaca Today walks through Friends Hall. Arianne Joson slowly waltzes to the door in her black robes, popping her head outside to greet the families.

Zach screams next, and Alex Smith follows behind Arianne. They apologize to incoming students and parents, who are whispering with concerned looks. “It’s just … we’re rehearsing?” The families quickly walk away.

The first full run-through begins. Alex Smith and Matt take notes. Most of the actors grab their scripts even though they know they shouldn’t.

Alex Bird has already memorized his lines as the Doctor. But his lines, noises and actions as a masturbating Easter bunny? Not so much.

Sunday, April 22 | 9:54 p.m. | Beeler Rehearsal Hall, Center for Music

It’s the first day of tech week. To theater kids, it’s hell week: the build-up before a show. It usually consists of excessive rehearsing until everything looks, sounds and smells perfect.

The only available space in Beeler Hall is from 10 p.m. to midnight, so the cast and crew are suffering in unity as they all exhaustedly stumble into Beeler Hall just before the time hits.

The fluorescent lights in the room reflect off the wooden floor. Heads are dizzy. Bodies are aching. Exhaustion is heavy, and when lighting coordinator Eliza Wildes, pulls out a long rolling box of metal pipe and drape to set up the stage, there’s an audible silence in the air.

The cast and crew dredge over to the box, unloading metal pipes and black curtains. The fabric flies up to the top of the metal banners, where they’re draped across the metal beams. They create a circle, and the audience is expected to sit in the center.

Jake’s practicing his lines behind the curtain. His script is sitting on the piano in the corner of the room. He’s finally nailed down his entire monologue as the graduation speaker (with split personalities):

SPEAKER: (sinister, ominous face) The world is a fucked-up place, ya know … You don’t know what is waiting just around the corner … Every day is just something else you couldn’t have guessed.

(snapping back to chipper speaker) But you’re prepared to tackle them head-on and face the adversity that is thrown your way, thanks to our wonderful six-step program of complementary liberal arts that enrich your experience with new perspectives and a wonderfully branded marketing campaign!

It’s 11 p.m. on the dot. It’s time. Matt calls “blackout,” and Eliza shuts all the lights off.

The rehearsal begins with the second scene of the play, between Jake and Kara. There’s an established comfort and understanding between them that wasn’t present before. They both deliver their memorized lines with sarcasm and playfulness. Her tighty-whities are stained with dirt from the wooden floor. She works them with pride.

Arianne, who has completed every rehearsal with a white sheet over her face to symbolize her “Blank” character, knew every line since her first rehearsal. She stands beside her fellow Blank companion, Ariella, who is still calling “line” in a robotic tone.

Shoshi is our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. She monologues in front of a wooden cross, which Dan Pichette built for the show. His ruby toga drags when he grabs a power tool off the ground. He turns it on, the metal rapidly rotating directly in front of her. She screams with reckless abandon. Dan bursts a container full of blüd, dripping it against her wrists. Matt laughs maniacally at the success of the scene.

Wednesday, April 25 | 8:37 p.m. | Outside Beeler Hall

Alex Bird enters in a pastel pink shirt. No stripes for Bird today.

The crew knows the drill: pipe and drape, circular shape. They get the curtains up twice as fast as they did on Sunday.

Matt calls the Alexes over to the corner of Beeler, near Eliza’s lighting setup. “So Ariella dropped out.” Ariella, a Blank character and a graduating student, explained that she had too much going on. She didn’t know the lines. It’s lame to drop out two days before the show … but Ariella’s been flaky the whole time. Matt had a back-up plan for a while.

“Would you be able to play the fourth graduate? Do you have a suit?” The questions are tied together. No is not an answer.

“Uh, yeah,” Bird replies.

“Where do you live?”

“Emerson.”

“Ok. Maybe run back there and get a suit, if you have one. Also, um, do you have a button-down shirt?” He nods. “Also grab that. Thanks.”

Alex Bird disappears. Matt turns to Alex Smith. They open their laptop and quickly type something.

“I got it.”

Just like that, there’s no threat to the show. It must go on, after all.

Behind the curtain, everyone is snacking on Arianne’s banana bread. But the petite actress sits completely still. Blank. But she’s a little concerned. No Ariella. No other Blank. Just her. And a mirror, which holds no significance to someone whose face is fully covered.

She pops out of the curtain and nails all of her lines and Ariella’s, turning 180 degrees with each comment.

“I. Do. Love. Our. Child. … I. Do. Too.”

As the vague ominous music plays, she is an enigma, a monster, a demon, a robot.

Jake improvs when he’s on stage during the Valentine’s Day dinner scene. “You’re goddamn right I’m angry!” He spits in Zach’s face, and he giggles, to which Jake responds with, “What do you have back there? A Mexican clinic? An abortion?!”

PAUL: Yeah, you bet your ass I’m fucking angry. What are you hiding in that kitchen? An abortion clinic? Mexicans?!

Eliza reads the script very intently, preparing for the cue line that will change the lighting. They hold a flashlight with a strobe in their mouth as the next FREAKOUT occurs.

This is the first time they run through the show with blüd. Shoshi is splashed with sugary, syrupy Hawaiian punch. As she desperately jogs behind the curtain to rub off the liquid after the scene, the cross begins to fall down. Arianne’s eyes widen, and Jackie, a visiting e-board member, jumps up, grabs the cross, attempting to hide her body behind the plank.

“Nailed it,” someone says.

Friday, April 27 | 5:30 p.m. | Beeler Hall, Center for Music

Doors open in half an hour. For the most part, things are calm. No one is panicking, except for Alex Smith, who found someone’s water bottle had leaked onto the props.

College students approach the table outside of Beeler, where Liz and Jackie are tabling and taking audience member’s phones.

Each viewer is asked to sign a consent form — it’s the same list of warnings that Kara read during auditions. An old couple who holds hands on its way to a formal instrumental rehearsal in the Hockett Recital Hall makes sour faces after noticing the plastic skull sitting in front of Liz.

“Come see the show!” She yells, watching them enter Hockett.

From left, freshman Dariene Seifert and sophomore Shoshi Fleury act as the couple Jeremy and Ricky. (Maxine Hansford/The Ithacan)

At around 7 p.m., the “bodyguards” (Alex Smith in damp attire, and Zach) begin patting down each audience member before they can enter.

A single red light shines on a familiar tarp. The doors slam shut behind them. Ominous music follows the audience as it sits cross-legged on the wooden floor, facing the tarp. Most of it is college students.

The floor is full. Perspiring bodies and adrenaline. Students share whispers. An energetic fear hangs in the space, like on a cold October night before entering a haunted house.

The lights go dark. The room is silent until Shoshi’s first monumental scream:

The first FREAKOUT is mild. Everyone in the cast and crew screams and bangs on chairs from behind and in front of the curtain. Lights flash red, yellow and blue.

Alex Bird appears center stage in nurse’s robes, bright yellow gloves and a cough mask.

DOCTOR: Awake, children! Look around!

On every side of the audience, butt-naked actors playing babies sob hysterically. Their genitals are uncomfortably close to the audience members. Some students laugh. Some of them turn to friends with wide eyes. The babies don’t stop crying.

DOCTOR: SHUT UP! FUCKING CHRIST! ACCEPT GOD’S GIFT, YOU UNGRATEFUL SHITS!

The Doctor slaps the babies off the stage. A moment later, Zach screeches from the audience:

“Doctor! I need a doctor!” He’s pulled out of the audience. The next five minutes is full of swanky jazz music while Zach gives birth to a baby doll oversaturated with dried blüd.

Blackout.

Alistair crouches down next to someone in the audience, and when the lights flash back on, he whispers, “It all started in the oceans. You know that?” The student literally jumps, and laughter ensues over Alistair’s first monologue:

“I mean, how can a world exist without a God? It’s like toast without jam or sex without the herpes.”

Paul appears with Deborah, center stage. Their well-practiced sex scene begins. A few students flinch at Paul’s repulsive language toward Deborah. Most laugh, as does Jake.

Stage left, Dariene Seifert and Shoshi sit side by side, their intentionally boring dialogue adding a sense of security to the performance.

The security is quickly snapped when the duo prepares to murder its own child.

Stage left goes dark. Stage right is lit with dark blue. Arianne sits in a single chair, a white mask coating her face. The audience is tense. One student is leaning into her friend, fearful of what’s next.

The perspective switches back to Paul and Deborah center stage after gnarly sex. The characters get into an argument. It’s unclear whether the audience is laughing to break the tension or if Jake’s exuberance is hilarious.

“You’re sick of me? I’m sick of you!”

Jake snags a sugar glass bottle from the music stand, which was being used as a prop table. “God!” he yells, tossing the bottle against the tarp.

Except, it doesn’t shatter. The Crackhead picks it up again, aggressively hurling it at the ground.

It bounces once. Jake stares in complete frustration.

“God!” Finally, the sugar shatters, and despite a prepared audience, they recoil as the shards hit them.

No trigger warning for this.

One shard slices the back of Kara’s hand open, but she doesn’t feel it. Yet.

The stage goes dark and flashes to a restaurant interior, where both couples sit on either side of the room. It’s Valentine’s Day. Everything is lovely.

And then, murder.

Screaming. Fake blüd everywhere. Splattered across the first two rows of the audience. Most cower as they’re splashed, but others laugh pleasantly.

More yelling. More screaming. Miraculously, by the time Shoshi appears in a tweed skirt and nothing else, no one has found an escape route out of Beeler.

The lights are dark. Dan and Zach, dressed as Romans, tightly grip whips behind the curtain. The leather fabric strikes the floor, and Shoshi screams again. The Romans follow Jesus in a circular path around the audience, creating a dizzying effect. A holy choir begins to sing as Shoshi carries the weight of the cross on her back.

Sophomore Shoshi Fleury carries a wooden cross across the stage, followed by Zach Randall. (Maxine Hansford/The Ithacan)

CHRIST: Oh, Father, hear my prayer! Who is it that hides in cowardice under the shade of the sacred cross? But when challenged like Job, do they outright deny you?

Crew members behind the curtain boo Jesus Christ, while Alex Bird, stripped down to grey boxers and a bunny mask reminiscent of the one from “Donnie Darko,” stares at Jesus. His hand is tightly gripping a pink dildo between his legs. He’s masturbating at the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. Black-robed priests enter, their ruby candles creating an ominous glow. Jesus continues to sob. The holy choir music mixes with scripture passages read in reverse, creating an amalgamation of suffering.

Christ screams as a bucket of blüd comes pouring down his head. He falls to the ground. The Romans carry him to the area behind the audience, where the Masturbator continues going at it. When he finishes, everyone shouts “Hallelujah!”

The last FREAKOUT makes the audience cringe, but they know what they’ve gotten into by now. It is “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Exorcist,” “Silence of the Lambs” and a million other things tied into one. It’s the best worst acid trip of all time.

The Commencement scene is the most realistic form of horror. As Jake calls out students to shake his hand and take a diploma, a different sense of tension strikes the audience. This isn’t just oversaturated violent terror — it’s simple, and it’s real.

SPEAKER: And lastly, student number 5.

5: No.

SPEAKER: (clears throat) Student number 5!

5: (more agitated) NO!

SPEAKER: Last chance, student number five…

Dan and Zach, bodyguards in black attire, run over to Kara and toss her on the ground. She’s screaming when Dan pulls a shiny metal object from his pocket. As soon as she leans her head downward, the audience begins to realize what’s happening.

He runs a razor from the nape of her neck to the tip of her hairline. A chunk of brown hair falls to the ground, landing on the tarp.

5: Is this it? Are the clocks ticking to my heartbeat out of time? Each tick pounds deep against my skull.

The razor falls to the ground, leaving Kara missing three small patches of hair. All of the characters from previous acts drift out of the shadows. Their expressions are motionless. As the student screams for her life, agonizing, down on her knees, the characters wander around the audience, singing “Kumbaya,” touching the heads of audience members. With every lyric, their voices get louder, grittier.

Blackout.

After far too long, Alistair appears from the back curtain. A single blue light is on him.

NARRATOR:   (waits) All this for a little bit of fun…Is it worth it? It’s time to pull the shades back and let the sun in. Take your Christmas lights down and get back to work. Nobody asked for your help anyway.

 

Editors note: Kara Bowen is the Life & Culture Editor of The Ithacan.