Creating a supernaturally scary atmosphere on stage is difficult, particularly on a low budget in a small theatre, where the actors are not only clearly flesh and blood, but almost within reach. A friend of mine recently discussed his idea for a play, the climax of which would snap sudden focus on a monstrous visage. The reason the play was on the back burner was that he wasn’t sure how to make the monster scary instead of funny, creepy instead of ludicrously rubber-masked. It’s a difficult proposition, because the stage puts everything on display. But when it can manage to unsettle properly (Conor McPherson’s Shining City comes to mind), it can be electrifying.
Atomic Vaudeville‘s Ride The Cyclone manages to be fearsome and funny, eerie and irreverent. It’s the story of six high school students, all school choir members, from the imaginary, failing small town of Uranium, Saskatchewan (named for its chief export from more successful days) who tell their stories, hopes, and dreams to us in song. They tell their stories on the spirit world’s carnival grounds, because they’ve all died falling from the Cyclone roller coaster when it malfunctioned. It’s sort of like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, if all the children participating in the bee had been killed in a terrible spelling accident.
Ride The Cyclone’s omniscient narrator is the Amazing Karnak, a fortune-telling machine abandoned because its less-than-family-friendly main skill proved to be predicting the place and time of the client’s death. Before his power cord is severed by a rat named Virgil, Karnak is using his final minutes of life to bring the children back to life for one last performance. (The rat, eyes glowing red, plays bass.)
Book and lyric writer Jacob Richmond’s Uranium is the kind of all-Canadian “little town” that rapidly setting sunshine sketches are made of; it’s a black hole that offers little other than the prospect of future mall employment, and its worldliness extends to a song being inspired by “African folk songs, specifically The Lion King”. The children have means and plans for escape, whether literal or merely mental. Ocean (Rielle Braid), a typical Type A overachiever with the twist of a Jewish Marxist father and Randian Catholic mother, meant to debate her way out of town. Noel (Kholby Wardell), the only gay student in town, dreams of leaving Uranium’s obnoxious political correctness with a passionately self-destructive existence as the heroine of a tragic French film. Ricky (Elliott Loren) is the hero of his own space opera. Misha (Carey Wass), rage-filled rapping Ukranian émigré, softens when he imagines marriage to his online girlfriend. Constance (Kelly Hudson) is the only Uranium “lifer,” and her quest to come to terms with this is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. The characters are gradually filled out, always steering just clear of stereotype.
Karnak the puppet and his booth are superbly designed and handled; his rumbling, room-filling voice both chilling and sad. His character, alongside skilled set, lighting and sound design that come together to create the atmosphere of a sinister, dilapidated carnival, are two big reasons why the show can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up (kudos to designers Hank Pine, James Insell, and Sarah Yaffe). The other reason is the mystery sixth teen, Sarah Jane Pelzer’s Jane Doe, who the accident left headless and unidentified. With only a combination of pale make-up, full-eye black contact lenses, and a nearly impenetrable air of detachment and sorrow, Pelzer’s arresting presence haunts the show, attempting to discover her identity. The progression of the other characters’ attitudes, from creeped out to compassionate, proves uplifting.
Richmond and composer Brooke Maxwell serve up a rollicking pastiche of musical genres. Sure, there’s that gospel number that all offbeat musicals since Urinetown seem to need, but there’s also a stylish Ukranian wedding song, and an epic sci-fi journey that could be a Rocky Horror bonus track (in a good way). There are some lovely voices to go along with the music, Braid and Wardell in particular.
The book and lyrics are clever, funny, and occasionally sweet. However, irreverence and irony occasionally threaten to overwhelm the proceedings, as if the creators are afraid to let the audience truly feel for the characters, so we’re made to laugh with instead of possibly laugh at. Most of the time, this works, but it’s a matter of degree. While lyrics such as “I thought life was a jawbreaker, you just suck, suck, and suck some more” are jokey, they are clever, age-appropriate, and lead to a heartfelt character moment. As that moment happens, however, we are immediately jerked away from it by some nonsense about a cartoon bear, accompanied by a cast member suddenly dressed as a bear. The incongruity is momentarily funny, but costs more than it adds. We won’t take away your irony cred if you let your emotional guard down for a second, I promise. When these aching moments about lost dreams and ruined potential are left to unfold, the show really hits its mark. Luckily for us, it hits this mark often, and we come to care about every single character.
It’s remarkable how a show mired in death manages to be so lively and life-affirming. Even purgatory can’t keep these kids down.