'Hell House' succeeds in its sincerity

Washington Square News, New York/October 17, 2006
By Marc Strom

In the four years it’s been around, Les Freres Corbusier has proven — with shows like “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant” and “Heddatron” — that it is one the more inventive and original theater groups in New York. With “Hell House,” it’s managed to create something even more interesting: a theatrical documentary taking the audience through a haunted house tour of the perverse consciousness of evangelical America.

A “hell house” is a haunted house put on by evangelical churches throughout the South and Midwest around Halloween. They’re typically used as a conversion technique, attempting to frighten people into re-proclaiming (or just proclaiming) their faith in Jesus. Corbusier’s “Hell House,” produced by Aaron Lemon-Strauss and directed by Alex Timbers, uses the same script all these churches use (as provided by their main proponent, Pastor Keenan Roberts), and presents it straight-up and devoid of any irony — which is what makes the show so very effective.

The show consists of a series of rooms depicting the evils of pre-marital sex, gay marriage and irony. The script, in its unadulterated state, is hands-down horrific. At one point early in the tour, the demon guide shows a girl who was raped at a rave (because, y’know, that’s what happens to you when you go to a rave: you get drugged and raped). The demon then goes on to insinuate that the girl is a dirty, dirty little trollop whose father only ever slept with her because she wanted him to, a fact which clearly — according to the script, at least — has a direct bearing on why she was raped.

Each room is meant to instill horror in the minds of the audience. In a secularized setting like New York, though, the rooms are far more likely to induce extreme bouts of laughter at the ham-fisted and extraordinarily distorted depictions of “reality.” The horror of the Les Freres Corbusier production is the fact that many people seeing the “Hell House” in a more religious setting are buying what they’re being sold: That if you’re gay, you will, without a shadow of a doubt, die of AIDS, or that following “Harry Potter” and Dungeons & Dragons would lead you to shoot up your school.

The brilliance of the Corbusier production is in its presentation without ironizing the script whatsoever. Providing an uncompromised view of evangelical beliefs is far more horrifying than any comedic, exaggerated romp. Any irony in the production only exists in the eye of the beholder, a sort of disbelief at the fact that what one is seeing is what many people in America honestly believe. The whole thing ends with a “Christian hoedown” with mini-doughnuts, Christian music and a game of “Pin the sin on Jesus,” and creates a false sense of community that captures the manipulative, peer-pressure nature of many of these evangelical churches. While mass conversions aren’t likely, the experience is as intact as possible, and it’s one that most are not likely to forget.

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