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Theatre Review: The Victorian Hotel

Lynne Bronstein, Mirror Staff Writer

The Victorian Hotel, now playing at the Powerhouse Theatre, is the perfect play for Halloween. But it’s not for the kiddies, even though it is described as a “living cartoon.”

You’ll know why if you’ve ever seen an episode of The Oblongs, the funny but ghoulish and risqué animated series now running on Adult Swim. The Victorian Hotel, like The Oblongs, is the brainchild of cartoonist-writer Angus Oblong, whose worldview seems to be a mixture of the spooky fantasies of Tim Burton’s films and the outrageous sensibility of late 1960s underground comics. The Powerhouse’s production, directed with a much-needed steady hand by Mark Valdez, teams members of Powerhouse’s company with the puppetry troupe the Rogue Artists, and uses a mix of live actors, puppets and video/animation effects to create a haunted world that is eerily beautiful but creepy and naughty.

The storyline is Haunted House meets Bedroom Farce. Stuffy late-Victorian married couple Claudia (Kelly Pendygraft) and Winston (John Crawford) arrive at the Victorian Hotel for a “vacation,” which is actually a subterfuge – they are both planning to rendezvous with their respective lovers, Oscar (Miles Taber) and Rebecca (Kate Huffman). Neither Claudia nor Winston turn back at the sight of skeletons manning the front desk and the elevator (although Winston dusts webs off his hat, saying, “The spiders work quickly around here”).  Claudia has an encounter with an otherworldly being named Seraphim (voice by Michelle Zamora, body by the Rogue Artists) whose eyes glow in the dark. She tells Claudia about her twin sister Succubelle, a creature one doesn’t want to meet even in a well-lighted alley. Soon Claudia is trying to hunt down Succubelle, hoping to conjure the evil being in order to subdue her husband while she frolics with her lover. The arrival of both Oscar and Rebecca leads to a series of bedroom misadventures, with the hotel’s ghouls providing some unexpected kicks and thrills.

As a straight comedy this would be just plain silly. But like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the conceit of using the milieu of the horror movie as a setting sharpens the silliness into dark satire. And the special effects almost make you forget that this is a stage production. You won’t be thinking, “How did they do that?” too often during this play because you’ll be laughing too much. But suffice it to say that the Rogue Artists are so good at their art of mingling live actors, puppets and visual effects that they will make you question the need for CGI in movies.

The puppets range from larger-than-life sized creatures (modeled after Angus Oblong’s cartoon characters) who are wielded by black-clad puppeteers, to tiny sprites perched on rods, who perform as shadows projected onto translucent screens in the tradition of East Indian shadow puppetry. Screens and lights move precisely at the right times, accompanied by demonic music. One extraordinary effect involves a talking portrait (apparently animated), which deserves the Gollum Award for best-combined animated-acted performance.

Oh but make no mistake, the live people are great too. Pendygraft and Huffman do their turns as the wife and the mistress, respectively, as Gilbert and Sullivan ingénues who have discovered their libidos; Crawford displays a dry, John Cleese-type of aura as the clueless husband; Taber is even more comically clueless as the lover; and the actors contributing the voices to the puppets are a rogues’ gallery of verbal cartoons.

The Victorian Hotel is dirty, creepy, slightly scary, strangely lovely and funny from start to finish. See it this Halloween with someone you can hold on to.

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