Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Abominable Showman, June 3, 2012

Stage Fright
Theatre audiences love whodunits – from Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap in London’s West End, to Shear Madness in Boston and Curtains in Montreal, the same city where infamous onetime porn star Luka Rocco Magnotta is the sole suspect in a grisly real-life killing that is living proof human beings continue to be fascinated by murder and the macabre…
By Richard Burnett
I loved London in the 1970s. The city clanged and lit up like a pinball machine, which I adored playing in London Town’s arcade parlours. I was a wide-eyed kid who snuck smokes behind my parents back, loved going to the movies – one of my faves was The Gumball Rally in 1976 starring Michael Sarrazin (an old friend of the late Nick Auf der Maur, the Montreal boulevardier and newspaperman who – incidentally – would become my mentor years later) – and going to see the play The Mousetrap.
Agatha Christie’s famed whodunit had its London premiere at the New Ambassadors Theatre in the West End in November 1952, then in March 1974 transferred next door to the St. Martin’s Theatre which is where I saw it.

Agatha Christie herself thought the London run wouldn’t last longer than eight months. When The Mousetrap broke the record for the longest run of a play in the West End in September 1957, Noël Coward sent her telegram which read, “Much as it pains me I really must congratulate you…”
Today, almost 60 years after its premiere, The Mousetrap has the longest initial run of any play in history – and is still running at the St. Martin’s Theatre which is currently booking tickets through December 2013. 
Interestingly, The Mousetrap also became the longest-running show in Canada, at the old Toronto Truck Theatre (in Toronto, natch) where it ran 26 years, from August 1977 to January 2004, presenting over 9,000 performances. 
(Christie gave the rights to The Mousetrap to her grandson Matthew Prichard as a birthday present and under the contract terms of the play, only one version of the play can be performed annually outside of the West End and no film adaptation can be produced until the West End production has been closed for at least six months.)
Hitchcock and Dietrich on the set of Stage Fright
The Mousetrap is based on the real-life death of a boy, Dennis O'Neill, who died while in the foster care of a Shropshire farmer and his wife in 1945, and is living proof that theatre audiences can’t get enough of murder and mayhem. 
After all, how else to explain the huge success of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950 British crime film Stage Fright, widely considered by Hitchcock fans to be one of his worst whodunits ever?
It helps that Stage Fright stars an amazing cast – Jane Wyman, Michael Wilding, Richard Todd, the great Alastair Sim and Marlene Dietrich as a glamourous theatre star performing in a West End musical. Hitchcock’s adoring close-up of Dietrich smoking a cigarette onstage at the very end is worth the price of admission alone.
As with Stage Fright and The Mousetrap, I fell in love with yet another murder mystery, Shear Madness, which I saw in Boston two years ago at the historic Charles Playhouse, a 199-seat cabaret-style theatre that used to be the Storyland nightclub in the 1940s, hosting such jazz artists as Fats Waller and Earl Fatha Hines. The playhouse then moved to the forefront of America’s regional theatre movement, premiering works by Brecht, O’Neill, Pirandello and Tennessee Williams and featuring performances by many up-and-comers like Al Pacino, Jill Clayburgh and Jane Alexander. 
So it was pretty darn cool just to watch Shear Madness performed in this historic theatre on Warrenton Street (just a couple blocks away from the ab-fab drag-queen bar Jacque’s Cabaret). In fact, the Charles Playhouse has presented Shear Madness continually since January 1980 and it is now the longest running non-musical play in the history of American theatre. 
Part of the play’s phenomenal success is due to the crowd Q&A participation with the homicide cops in Shear Madness, so the audience decides who the murderer is. Meaning the ending can change every night of the week. I enjoyed it very much.
The puzzle – guessing who killed who – is, of course, the key to all whodunits, along with the essential eccentric detective or semi-professional sleuth character. This too is well-exploited in the current Montreal production of Curtains, the musical comedy written by the same team who gave us Cabaret and Chicago
The musical – nominated for eight Tony Awards in 2007 (David Hyde Pierce won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical) – is a triple-murder-mystery set in 1959 on opening night of a theatre company’s abysmal production of Robbin’ Hood of the Old West whose leading lady Jessica Cranshaw cannot sing, act, dance, or even remember her lines, and is murdered during her curtain call. 
I really enjoyed this two-and-a-half-hour production (it flew by) by The Lyric Theatre Singers, notably Nancy Stewart (a real pistol) as Carmen Berstein, who plays the show’s brassy producer, and Natalie McLennan who absolutely shined as starlet Bambi Bernet. There was also a lot of eye-candy in the cast, such as Benjamin Warner and ensemble twinkie Ian Burke. 
(And I love the renovated, state-of-the-art D.B. Clark Theatre in downtown Montreal, arguably the best mid-size theatre in the city – they really should install their own marquee. Meanwhile, read Christopher Lane’s review of Curtains in The Charlebois Post by clicking here.)
Magnotta (police handout photo)
The popularity of whodunits continues to reflect our prurient interest in real-life crimes, like the global current obsession with famed-obsessed former stripper and porn star Luka Rocco Magnotta, 29, the sole suspect in the grisly Montreal murder of 33-year-old Concordia University international student Lin Jun, who hails from the Chinese city of Wuhan. 
The Toronto Star reports the Consulate General of China states Lin’s family lost contact with him on May 24 while a 10-minute video purportedly showing the killer repeatedly stabbing then dismembering his victim was posted May 25 to the Canada-based website Best Gore that deals with death and gore. The video also appears to depict cannibalism and sexual defiling of the body while the song True Faith by New Order plays in the background (that song was also featured in the film American Psycho).
“He hated his dad,” Nina Arsenault, a transsexual and former girlfriend who dated Magnotta a decade ago told The Star. “He hated his family and said they didn’t understand him and he had to get away from him.”
Arsenault – whom I interviewed in this column to preview recent productions of her critically-acclaimed one-transwoman show The Silicone Diaries in Montreal and Vancouver – says Magnotta had a temper and “if it went on it was terrifying.” 
Magnotta is now reportedly on the run in France, wanted by the RCMP, Interpol and Scotland Yard in an international manhunt.
No doubt Arsenault will revise The Silicone Diaries to include Magnotta in a scene that will most certainly generate headlines, much like her encounter with Pamela Anderson’s ex-hubby, Motley Crue rocker Tommy Lee, did. “Yeah, he’s really cocksure!” Nina told me.
But the global media attention Magnotta has gotten in recent days pretty much ensures some producer somewhere will stage his story. 
How about a Hollywood biopic like infamous NYC club kid Michael Alig, who murdered his drug dealer?
“Bad things happen to people when their lives become immersed in drugs and that’s what happened to Michael,” former New York club king (and Alig’s onetime employer) Peter Gatien told me this past autumn while promoting his own biopic, Limelight, the documentary filmed by his daughter.
Gatien (Video Services Corp.)

Or perhaps audiences will see a play about Magnotta on the stage. 
I know his story isn’t exactly Shear Madness, Curtains or The Mousetrap, but these stories all do share one thing: Humankind’s continuing fascination with murder and the macabre.
The Lyric Theatre Singers present Curtains! at Montreal’s D.B. Clarke Theatre (1455 De Maisonneuve Blvd. West) until June 9. Admission: $22-$42. Click here for tickets and more info. 
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