The darkened Alchemist Theatre bar is that much darker this month courtesy of the dark show onstage next door: Emerald Condor’s modern ragtime horror The Flesh Trade. The big premiere of the show last night was sold-out. A full crowd packed into the intimate space to see Kendall Yorkey struggle to get out of the tiny old western town of Tombstone in a sinister comedy of surprising depth.
Scenic Designer Aaron Kopec establishes a tight, little atmosphere for the western horror. The stage is populated with elements which lock-in the feel of a turn-of-the-century brothel. Showtime comes near and there are a few hoots from the audience as the three dancers take their places in full burlesque costume. The music starts. Honey (Kendall Yorkey), Sugar (Ami Majeskie) and Candy (Katie Katschke) launch into the opening number: “One Horse Town. It’s easily one of the catchiest tunes in the show.
(As it is a world premiere with songs no one has ever heard before, it’s a cool bit of promotion that Emerald Condor is providing some of the original score on Bandcamp.)
Yes: It’s A Horror Musical
So it’s a musical horror comedy. Yorkey plays a dancer named Honey who wants to get out of town. (That’s her singing lead on “One Horse Town.”) If he’s going to be able to escape, she’s going to need to provide human meat for a sinister survivor of the Donner Party. (Nick Firer is great here--he knows how to play a pulpy, homicidal villain without chewing the goddamned scenery all to hell. Most villainous Hollywood actors are paid much more to do much, much worse.)
So okay so it’s a horror musical. There are cute, little references to other musical horror shows. The brothel where the girls do their thing is on Fleet Street: a nice tip of the hat to a certain murderous musical barber from the other side of the Atlantic. One of the nicest guys in the show is names Seymour. This isn’t any little shop, though and they aren’t looking to feed a hungry plant: The villain is forcing Honey to provide human meat for himself and his associates. Seymour just might end up on the menu...with much of the rest of the cast. (It’s a small town on the small stage and the Donner Party has a rather large appetite.)
It’s A Lot Deeper Than Six Feet, Though
There’s a kind of genius to Michael Christopher’s show--a show he wrote, directed and composed the music for. This is the first ever production of a musical that I would LOVE to see get take off into a million other productions all over the country.
On one level, it’s just a ghoulish, sexy little horror comedy with cheery ragtime that’s been bent into the darkness...but it’s got a depth that sneaks-up on you like the grave and pulls you under.
Christopher plays with allegory in the show...hell: even the titles an allegorical play on words. This is a grungy small-stage version of Hollywood’s cinematic old west. Honey and her colleagues Candy and Sugar are the lowest end of the socio-economical ladder. They’re single women. They can’t vote. They’re in a stigmatized profession so no one’s going to believe anything they say. It’s an amplified look at life on the bottom of the heap. In modern terms this is like...99% of the population, though. We are ALL Candy and Sugar and Honey...all desperately trying to escape the oppression of a system that only really rewards the people who already have everything.
In addition to largely playing the Donner Party, the guys in the cast play a middle class that can only pry on those (sometimes literally) beneath them. It’s an ugly, ugly world that Christopher renders here, but there IS a kind of beauty to it. And maybe all we can do is try so desperately to claw our way out of the filth. And in this respect, The Flesh Trade is oddly inspirational. Honey is a survivor--a horror ant-hero who casually drinks strychnine because it’s what she grew-up drinking. I don’t want to give it all away, but the allegorical symbolism gets pretty thick if you really want to go swimming in it at the bar after the show.
Beauty Is Filth. Filth Is Beauty
Christopher and company have found something really deep and beautiful in that which is generally considered to be lightly trashy culture. There’s belching. There’s pole dancing. (Seems a bit anachronistic, but Christopher gives a nice, little history lesson via a dialogue between Honey and Candy. A quick check on wikipedia corroborates. Yes: there WAS pole dancing in the old west.)
Some of the best songs in the show make reference to bestiality, cannibalism and menstruation. Christopher keeps hammering into vulgar imagery throughout the dialogue. In over 100 shows in over a decade, I’ve never once heard a reference made to a merkin. Thanks to The Flesh Trade, I’m sure I’ve heard at least a dozen such references...
We all identify with this, though. We’re all searching for beauty while swimming through the vulgarity of modern society, right? Or maybe we’re looking for beauty IN that vulgarity. Christopher identifies this and uses it as the central force animating it all. In our own ways, we are all trying to claw our way out of the filth of a little town called Tombstone. And like Honey, we might have to do a lot of ugly things in order to reach the beauty beyond Tombstone.
Emerald Condor’s production of The Flesh Trade runs through Aug. 18 at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit www.thealchemisttheatre.com. A concise review of the show runs in the next print edition of The Shepherd-Express.