Engine House Theatre in Madrid, Nov. 1
Spending the evening in the former mining town of Madrid is less of a cutesy tourist experience than it is total immersion in an off-kilter culture of iconoclastic artists, dyed-in-the-wool hippies, and frontier toughs. The annual Halloween tradition of Joe West’s Theater of Death may just epitomize what the once-abandoned ghost town is all about. Joe West’s Theater of Death IV: Invasion!, which ran from Oct. 26 through Nov. 4, is old-fashioned community theater in its most joyous form — homegrown and utterly unpretentious. West, a well-known local musician, is the writer and director of a collection of three science-fiction playlets that feature a multigenerational cast of locals from Madrid and Northern New Mexico acting their earnest hearts out in the rugged yet homey Engine House Theatre, which is made largely of corrugated tin and into which audience members are welcome to bring their drinks from the Mine Shaft Tavern next door.
The three short plays are united by an extraterrestrial race of alien beings outfitted in silver bodysuits, each sporting one eye in the center of her face. In “The Alien Baby,” Clara (Teresa Finley) has given birth to something blue that is scaring the doctor and nurses but that she believes will save the human race. In the standout story of the production, “Death by Crystal Egg,” Todd Anderson and Andrew Wice play two versions of the same stoner Vietnam vet named Johnny, who stumbles across a portable portal to another world while dumpster diving. An interlude called “Got Milk,” written by Timothy Willis and starring Steven Sheppard, features a cow being abducted by a flying saucer. The final segment, “Verdict from Space,” which West adapted from the writings of Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985), was the only weak spot of the evening, due to an overly expository script and an energetic but tough-to-follow performance by theater newcomer Dennis Pettas as Professor Sykes. Pettas used a thick, indeterminately European accent while trying to lead the hapless Gordon Kemp (Anderson) to an alien cave and some sort of “beautiful machine.”
Theater of Death is styled in the tradition of the fright fest known as the Grand Guignol, which originated in Paris in the late 19th century. West’s version is also reminiscent of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show that first appeared on basic cable in the late 1980s, in which a man and his robot buddies watch and comment upon so-bad-they’re-good science fiction movies. Though Theater of Death isn’t call-and-response on the level of the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) — to which audience members bring props and yell memorized phrases at the screen — there is some back and forth with West during musical numbers.
The most impressive aspect of Theater of Death IV: Invasion! is the innovative staging that incorporates theater combat, special effects, and puppetry, as well as rousing, amusing musical accompaniment by West, Tim “Slim” Arnold, and Lance Highers. Even though everyone dies in the end, Theater of Death is a whole lot of campy fun.