Before he became a one-man industry in the horror field–a prolific and seemingly tireless producer of scary stories, novels, movies and comic books author-illustrator Clive Barker worked in the theatre. In the 1970s, after studying English literature and philosophy at his hometown university, the Liverpool-bred Barker, then in his early twenties, moved to London and founded the Dog Company, a low-budget fringe group whose repertoire, much of it written by Barker himself, boasted such titles as Frankenstein in Love, The History of the Devil and Dangerous World.
The Dog Company’s method, says Barker in his book Shadows in Eden, was “chucking as many balls in the air as we possibly could and then, when they fell, trying to catch as many as possible. I’m in love with Art that can’t catch all the balls.”
So when Barker, now based in Los Angeles (as befits his emergence as a director with such films as Hellraiser and Nightbreed), was approached by Chicago’s Organic Theater Company about the rights to his work, he proved strikingly sympathetic to the interests, working methods and financial limitations of the nonprofit, experimentally oriented collective. Launched around the same time as Barker’s Dog Company, the Organic has a tradition of putting new spins on the fantasy genre–a hippiesque, nude Peter Pan and the Marvel Comics-inspired sci-fi trilogy Warp were among its most-discussed shows. Changes in leadership following the departure in the early 1980s of founder Stuart Gordon (now a director of such horror films as Re-animator) had left the Organic in economic straits. But when Organic artistic associate Steve Pickering and his playwriting partner Charley Sherman contacted Barker in the spring of 1992 about the possibility of adapting his story “In the Flesh” for the stage, Barker was little concerned about money. He sold the rights for a token fee plus a percentage of eventual authors’ royalties. What appealed to him was Pickering and Sherman’s enthusiasm and creativity.
Grandpa was a murderer
Like Barker who’s inclined to use the term fantastique when discussing his style–Sherman and Pickering were drawn to the horror/fantasy genre not just because of its visceral excitement but also by its provocative ideas. Barker, who cites Melville, the Bible, William Blake and William S. Burroughs among his influences, thinks of himself as a mythmaker exploring the nature of human existence. In the Flesh, for example, is a rich if morbid mix of social criticism and religious allegory. It concerns the relationship between two inmates in North London’s dreary Pentonville Prison which, with its meanness of spirit posturing as enlightened reform, is a microcosm of Thatcherian England.
Cleveland Smith, a cynical small-time dope dealer, is assigned a new cellmate, a kid named Billy Tait. It develops that Billy is the grandson of a mass murderer who was executed at Pentonville some years earlier–and that Billy is trying to make contact with his evil ancestor in nightly journeys to a strange netherworld, into which Smith is also lured. As Billy connects with the late Tait’s seductive spirit, he acquires the ability to transform himself into a bizarre monster–an altered state symbolizing the primeval violence lurking in our collective soul, as well as an act of defiance against a corrupt and decadent civilization. “The century’s getting old and stale,” Billy tells Smith. “It needs new tribes.”
“When we got Barker on the phone, he asked us what we thought ‘In the Flesh’ was about,” recalls Pickering. “We said, ‘We think it’s about the search for something to believe in.’ After a long, static-filled pause, he said, ‘Good answer.’ From then on he was with us all the way.”
To bring this tale of moral and morphological ambiguities to the Organic stage on a tight and tiny budget, Sherman (making his directorial debut with the assistance of choreographer Julia Neary) and Pickering (supervising a seven-person design team) emphasized atmosphere over shock effects. “We stayed away from what people might expect–a lot of gore,” says Sherman, a British expatriate and professed devotee of the horror genre. “We wanted to work through the man’s ideas, not the trappings.”
Working in a 40-seat studio space last November and December on a $3,000 budget, the production team conveyed the story with remarkable fluidity, relying primarily on sharply focused lighting (including blacklight to reveal grotesque makeup effects) and tightly choreographed interaction between sound and image. One haunting sequence found Jeff Atkins’s gaunt, feral Billy silhouetted by the shadows of prison bars as he listened to the midnight cries and moans of sleeping inmates; another, reminiscent of the Living Theater’s famous production of The Brig, depicted the prisoners performing meaningless militaristic rituals to the shattering, rhythmic clanging of police batons on the metal bars; a third showed two cons raping Billy in a shower stall–a crucial action in the development of the story–in an eerily homoerotic tableau (recalling the paintings of Caravaggio and suggesting a Christ-like aspect to Billy’s martyrdom) accompanied by the reverb-enhanced sound of a slow, steady water drip.
Monsters under the bed
The show’s central set-piece was a bunk bed, that rose from and descended into the stage floor as if by magic, and which later became a gateway to grandfather Tait’s supernatural City of Murderers, thanks to a hidden trapdoor. The dark jail cell metamorphosed into the lunar landscape of Tait’s nightmare necropolis by simple means of a white silk sheet which, when stretched over the floor, suggested shifting sands from whose soft ridges ghostly monsters emerged.
In the space of its one-month run, In the Flesh became a cult hit. Rather than extend the show, Pickering and Sherman decided to refashion it for a 200-seat mainstage; the $20,000 remounting was set to open in April and will run through May 30. The new production features an expanded set, which draws on ancient Egyptian, druidic and medieval English architectural motifs to emphasize the connection and conflict between pagan and Christian beliefs; it also makes greater use of makeup and puppetry to portray the metamorphic capabilities of Billy and his grandfather.
But the show’s central image is still the bunk bed, from whose lower level Billy travels from world to world and shape to shape while Cleveland Smith, in the upper bunk, listens in terror and fascination. It’s an appropriate setting, for what are horror stories besides expressions of our fears of monsters “under the bed” the frightening, mysterious forces in the dark around us and within us? Tapping into that elemental anxiety, In the Flesh tells a powerful tale in an absorbing and inventive way.