Laughter, Catharsis and a Side of Gore

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

So the Greeks, well Aristotle really, argued that one of the reasons to go to the theater was to experience catharsis, literally, a kind of emotional purging or cleansing. The idea was that you'd go to the theater and get so wrapped up in the characters lives, so involved in the emotions, the actions, the "pitiable and fearful incidents" that you'd get all worked up, just like the characters, and then at the climactic moment you'd have a little emotional orgasm of sorts that would release you of the fear or pity in your life. And you'd leave the theater refreshed and ready for another day.

Now, I'm not sure it's exactly what Aristotle had in mind, but if the new musical The Re-Animator is anything, it's cathartic -- in a sort of twisted-horror-campy way with a splash zone like the Shamu show at Sea World.

The Re-Animator is a clever take on the Frankenstein myth mixed with a touch of Prometheus and a dash of a messiah complex -- but with gallows humor. We follow aspiring mad-scientist Herbert West who believes he's found a way to bring the dead back to life with a deliciously spooky glowing green potion. Like all aspiring mad-scientists, things don't work out exactly as he planned. Along the way, there's a dead cat, a wholesome but sexy pair of young lovers, a lobotomy, a headless surgeon and blood -- lots and lots of blood.

It's a musical take on the cult horror film from the 80's based on the story by HP Lovecraft. If you don't know it, don't worry; the musical stands on its own - but for a special treat take a look at the movie's trailer on YouTube.

Stuart Gordon, who directed the movie, teams up with composer and lyricist Mark Nutter to capture all the gore from the screen version and pump it into the theater -- literally, the first three rows are invited to wear ponchos.

But The Re-Animator isn't really a scary show. It's sort of what a horror movie would look like if performed by a wildly talented improv comedy troop -- all set to music. And the music is the key. Without the structure of the music, literally keeping things up to speed, the show would descend into over-the-top camp. As it is, it dances brilliantly at the edge. Heck, there's a tango with zombies!

The joy of the show is watching a really talented cast test the limits of taste and brilliantly leap over them. And that's where the catharsis comes in - in the finale the wonderfully deadpan mad scientist gets all wrapped up - no, not emotions, intestines. The resulting aria, if I can call it that, is a bloody, bloody mess. It's so terribly inappropriate that it's glorious. Whether the laughter it invokes is cathartically purging us of the weight of the world or simply a return to the childlike glee of stomping in a muddy puddle, I think Aristotle would have liked it.

Re-Animator: The Musical plays at the Steve Allen Theater (Reservations: 1-800-595-4TIX) in Silver Lake through March 27.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner image of (L to R) Rachel Avery, George Wendt and Jesse Merlin in Re-Animator:The Musical. Photo: Thomas Hargis