When Daniel Martin took his new position last January as artistic director for Birmingham’s Theatre Downtown, one of his first tasks was to figure out how to make an actor vomit up a demon on stage.
It was for the company’s upcoming comedy/horror “Alice in Slasherland.” Martin didn’t choose the play (credit that to his predecessor of eight years, Billy Ray Brewton), yet it still fell to him and director Leslie Plaia to produce literal fountains of fake blood, resurrect and choreograph a fight with the four horsemen of the apocalypse and somehow make a teddy bear puppet grow to monstrous size, all on a stage that could fit inside your garage.
Martin had questions. “I was like, ‘Well how do you pull that off?'”
He is referring to the wacky Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-meets-Quinton-Tarantino stage antics of playwright Qui Nguyen from the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company in New York. When an ordinary high school nerd accidentally opens a gateway to Hell, he has to team up with the resurrected Alice (who had been murdered in Wonderland, apparently) to defend his town from creatures of darkness, one dismemberment at a time.
“This is definitely in the vein of what we do at Theatre Downtown,” says Plaia, who is directing the show on the heels of “Abraham Lincoln’s Big Gay Dance Party,” Brewton’s own “Dragula: The Musical” and other projects that show the company’s penchant for the off-beat.
The problem is adapting a not-too-far-off-Broadway production for the local Birmingham scene, but Plaia is undaunted. She has been in contact with Nguyen to learn some of the tricks used in the original production and goes on with theater student optimism about complicated fight choreography, innovative costume design and the honesty and enthusiasm of her actors.
“We were like, ‘Yeah, we’re a semi-professional company that can take on this kind of show with limited resources.'”
Martin is more cautious, or at least he was at first. He and Plaia agree that he makes for a somewhat more logistics-focused Artistic Director than Brewton, who Martin admits could sometimes be a little ambitious for an outfit nestled in the loft above 5th Avenue Antiques. “It’s a logistical nightmare. It’s like trying to stage a show like ‘Les Miserables’ in a black box. How do you make that happen?”
Yet Martin says his pragmatic eye isn’t a buzzkill, but something the company needs pull off a big project like “Slasherland”. “My job is to worry about things nobody else worries about. I’m the official worrier. They should make me a sash.”
Still, it’s not the gore that will make “Slasherland”. According to Plaia, Brewton’s committee ultimately chose the play not only because it was ambitious and fun, but because of the human story behind the B-movie camp. “If you believe it 100%, the audience is going to go on that ride with you,” she explains. “Maybe it’s because they’ve all had that first crush, or know what it’s like to want to land the cheerleader and can’t.”
Of course, camp there will be. The team believes that thanks to some surprisingly simple stage tricks they’ve more or less captured the scripts sanguinary splendor. Expect a roaming serial killer that ‘slays’ viewers, a murder montage set to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and one particularly gruesome bit that Plaia says “will make every male in the audience simultaneously cross their legs.”
That’s all standard fare for Theatre Downtown. As Martin puts it, “If anyone was going to pull this show off, it was us.”
(“Alice in Slasherland” opens on June 6th and will run three weekends. Check out the Theatre Downtown website for info and tickets.)