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Twin Cities Horror Fest opens with zombies, gore, and twisted fairy tales

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The Twin Cities Horror Festival, which opened last night at the Southern Theater, is like a seasonally themed miniature Fringe Festival. Hour-long plays, presented at 90-minute intervals, explore dark and macabre material. As with the Fringe, it pays to follow the buzz: Pause in the lobby to listen to what your fellow patrons are loving.

Twin Cities Horror Festival V

The Southern Theater
$15.12 per show; packages range from $55.98 to $157.42

Here are capsule reviews of four shows (out of a total 18 in the festival) that played Thursday night.

Ubu for President, Four Humors

Just when you thought this political season couldn’t get any more grotesque, along comes Four Humors with Ubu for President. A broad and bizarre satire of presidential politics, writer/director David Jarry’s Ubu is horrific in a broader sense than most other shows in the festival.

Mandi Johnson’s remarkable costumes are so central a part of the collaboratively created show that in a sense it hardly even seems to exist beyond them: The play’s most compelling moments are at the start, when the characters simply gather onstage in their nightmarish, circus-like attire.

First comes Brant Miller as the eponymous candidate, a white-smocked clown with baggy eyes and a foam club that he uses to beat everyone and everything around him in his frustration at not having the one thing he wants. That also happens to be precisely the thing he campaigned on a promise of not wanting: a big red ball that sits at stage right, taunting him with its promise of infinite fun.

If Ubu’s habitual self-contradiction is distinctly Trump-like, the rest of his bizarre administration recalls that of the more traditional Republican coalition: religious conservatives (represented by a lascivious Jason Ballweber in red robe and halo-like cap), military hawks (Ryan Lear, on his knees as a diminutive general), and business interests (Matt Spring, in a comically inflated blue blazer).

The commander-in-chief’s advisors help him cook up a range of schemes intended to distract his constituents from the fact that the only thing he really cares about is that damn ball. As we learn from projected newscasts, they all fail. Ubu’s frustration mounts, everyone (except the ironically saintly Ballweber) spits constant expletives, and the whole situation threatens to tip into chaos.

Ubu for President is a satire, but the show is so over-the-top in its conceit and so imprecise in its target that the longer the show goes on, the harder it is to understand what we’re supposed to be getting out of it. Sexist tropes are bandied about, an American flag is literally fucked (that’s only a minor spoiler, since the real surprise lies in exactly how it’s done), and the best-timed jokes are about pedophilia.

Turning up the volume on a noisy and hateful political climate might be, for some, cathartic. For others, it might simply be one loud clown too many.

A Zombie Odyssey, Theater Simple

Is it better to have lived and lost than never to have lived at all? That’s the question Brian (Ricky Coates) finds himself facing when he crawls through his house’s dog door. He's been locked out by his wife, because he’s dead. Can Brian, who lived a hapless and undistinguished life among the living, find redemption as a flesh-eating zombie?

How, exactly, Brian becomes a zombie is left somewhat ambiguous in this one-man show written by Coates and directed by K. Brian Neel. We know there was a car crash, but Brian doesn’t seem to remember much between that time and the point where he finds himself sucking down a raw (and hopefully pasteurized) egg from his fridge. Confronted with a living dead man, Brian’s acquaintances first react with disbelief, then try to turn the situation to their advantage.

With Coates the only performer onstage, the other characters’ dialogue is heard in voiceover; audio designer Dan Yost’s carefully choreographed sequence of sound effects help tell the story of this simple man who’s just longing for a little human connection (meaning, brains to eat). An adjustable stand at center stage becomes a car, a sofa, a gurney, and about a dozen other things as Brian the zombie stumbles through his long day’s journey into night.

The story, as its title suggests, is episodic (and it’s only the first episode of a trilogy, Coates mentioned after he took a bow). Jumpy transitions among scenes make it challenging to grasp the parameters of this incipient zombie apocalypse, as does the show’s shifting tone. The skin-crawling comedy that characterizes the play’s first half, as Dan is shocked to find himself craving the contents of a hospital’s biohazard bin, works better than the existential explorations of its latter half, which finds Brian getting a little life (er, death) coaching from the corpse of a man whose entrails he’s been sucking.

Can the undead Brian find the purpose and drive that he so manifestly lacks at the show’s opening, which finds him dragging himself home from work and shirking his domestic duties? A Zombie Odyssey leaves that as a cliffhanger, until such time as the Utah-based Coates returns to continue his solo saga.

Cinderella: A Revenge Play, Cheap Thrills Theater

Cinderella: A Revenge Play reinserts a lost character into the Cinderella story: the eponymous maiden’s mother (Joann Cho Oudekerk), who returns in the guise of a deadly spirit and urges her daughter to “hurt them back.” Who’s “them”? Everyone who hurt Cinderella (Sydney Baker), which of course means just about everyone in the story -- now including the Prince (Malick Ceesay), who turns out to have some ulterior motives regarding the possession of Cinderella’s dark powers.

Writer/director Emily Wrolson has crafted an intricate plot for her young cast to enact, and the show clips along quickly to get through the many turns of the screw. It might have been helpful to pause for a little exposition: How, exactly, does Cinderella’s dark power work? What do Prince Darren and his oily advisor Raymond (Martin Ware Jr.) want with that power, and how did they even find out about it? How did things go so wrong between Cinderella’s parents?

That last question turns out to be key to the play’s final scenes, when Cinderella’s father (a very loud Jacob Mobley) suggests that her mother poisoned his mind. That seems like some Shining-style manipulation, but since in this case the dark powers are on the feminine side, it’s hard to know what to make of this murderous mommy who’s constantly skulking about cloaked in black and glowing with LED lights (or their supernatural equivalent).

As in most Cinderella stories, it’s the wicked stepsisters who get to have all the fun. Unlike in most iterations, though, here they’re actually distinct characters with their own sisterly tensions. Kyra (Emilie Tomas) is the dominant sibling, expecting her sister Myra (Lauren Syme) to go along with all of her self-aggrandizing plans, from winning the Prince’s heart to murdering Cinderella atop her mother’s grave. Indignant at playing second fiddle, Syme provides a welcome dash of humor in scenes like the ballroom dance where she’s left to spin awkwardly alone.

Dynamic lighting that often casts characters in silhouettes against the tall back wall of the Southern stage helps to lend an eerie air to the proceedings, as does Sean Evenson’s synth-heavy score. (Did the Raven come from the Upside Down?) Though it’s not at the polished professional level that’s the norm for the fest, this Cinderella is fun to settle in with as you munch your Halloween candy.

Senseless, Dangerous Productions

Theatergoers familiar with the work of writer/director Tyler Olsen know what his signature square tarp portends: lots of blood. That tarp arrives in Senseless with a literal thud, one of several items that’s suddenly dropped from the rigging in this highly unsettling show.

As the play opens, Alex (Megan Koester) arrives at the door of an underground facility for the treatment of homicidal maniacs. A survivor of trauma who’s written a best-selling book about her recovery, she’s seemingly been invited by resident mad doctor Hybris (Tristan Tifft). He wants to show her the efficacy of his new method that involves, essentially, scaring his patients straight with chemically induced nightmares. When Alex learns that the facility holds the man who induced her trauma by murdering her mother, she’s of course terrified -- but assured, of course, that everything is perfectly safe. If you believe that, I’ve got a Slovakia student-travel package to sell you.

The show builds to a cascading series of endings, by the end of which -- like in a spaghetti Western -- everything is soaked in blood, and it seems like everyone has somehow gotten their revenge several times over. There turns out to be more and more, and then even more, to learn about that fateful night when Alex’s mother was murdered, and about what young Alex’s life was like before that. Her mother’s killer also has a backstory, which we learn through a Lecter-like interview with reporter Pat Kingston (Liz Carey-Linskey).

Senseless is Olsen’s goriest show yet, and if you’ve enjoyed the bloody carnage in previous productions like Itch, you’ll love seeing what body parts get scooped, slashed, ripped, and poked here. It’s an unabashedly scary show, with blood-streaked inmates closing a circle around the increasingly unsettled Alex while props crash to the stage and the soundtrack (by Olsen, with William Harmon) rumbles. Garrett Vollmer, as the incongruously cheerful nurse Jim, adds a bit of levity -- but only a bit.

It’s hard-core onstage horror, not suitable for some children under the age of 666. Go if you dare, but be warned: You’ll never look at a teaspoon the same way again.