Black Petals Issue #92, Summer, 2020

Theater is Dead

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Mars-Chris Friend
Misty Page-A Game of Chess
Sean M. Carey-Chilled Bones Under Lovely Skin
Roy Dorman-Death in the Round Room, Part IV
Lael Braday-Magical Perspective
Matt Spangler-Master Smasher
Lena Abou-Khalil-The Nowhere Man
Grace Sielinski-'Port
Gavin McGarvey-The Black Petals
Marc Dickerson-Theater is Dead
C. S. Harbold-The Whispering
Dean Patrick-Vincent's Warning
Doug Park-We Get Him Together
Joseph Hurtgen-Worlds to Conquer
Mickie Bolling-Burke-The Bringer of Darkness
Aaron Hicks-The Last Days
Cindy Rosmus-Out of Juice
Matthew Wilson-Endless Men's Hate
Michael Steven-Hell Rift
Sean Goulding-Hypnagogic
David C. Kopaska-Merkel-In the Land of Giants
Loris John Fazio-The Thing in the Woods
Loris John Fazio-The Beggar Knows
Richard Stevenson-Peg Leg
Richard Stevenson-The Alkali Lake Monster
Richard Stevenson-The Green Man

92_bp_theaterisdead_blanch.jpg
Art by Darren Blanch 2020

Theater is Dead

By Marc Dickerson

 

This cruelty, which will be bloody when necessary but not systematically so, can thus be identified with a kind of severe moral purity which is not afraid to pay life the price it must be paid.

—Antonin Artaud, The Theatre of Cruelty

 

“ONE NIGHT ONLY: Special performance for an audience of three.”

That was what the invitation said.

A fancy invitation, too. Gilded edges and everything. Handwritten in elegant calligraphy. The kind you’d get if you happened to pal around with the royal family. Hell, even the envelope was impressive. Shiny, sealed with wax.

Okay, sorry. Enough about the invite. I should explain how we came to receive it. That’s what you want to know. Among other things.

This isn’t going to be easy for me. But I appreciate you honoring my request to submit this as a written statement, as opposed to a spoken deposition. Taking time to compose my thoughts has proved necessary for me to get through this more than you can imagine. Oh, and I write like I talk, so apologies in advance if this isn’t exactly Edgar Allan Poe (I’m in real estate, after all). But it’s better than the stuttering, babbling mess I would be trying to verbally recount these events in front of even one person. Anyway, I hope what follows is sufficient in getting across what I believe I witnessed.

I know it’s going to sound crazy. But it’s the truth.

#

It was a done deal. Tom and Jessica and I, we were already out for drinks, celebrating. Negotiations ended at noon and by 12:05 we were at the local watering hole, dinging glasses. The three of us had been business partners together for a few years now, and this was our usual course of action once a deal was closed. And this had been a big one.

The Lantern had charm, sure. But the time had come for the old theater to be snuffed out, so to speak. In its place, a shopping galleria. We don’t use the terms “center” or “plaza” anymore—too boring. Besides, this would be a different kind of shopping experience. Without going into sales mode and giving you the whole pitch, the development plan wasn’t for merely a suite of stores, but a tasteful promenade where people can stroll, hang out, and yes, do some shopping. The destination for all your modern consumer needs; cell phone stores, yoga and meditation centers, overpriced coffee shops, you name it. The people in this desolate area need a place like this, they just don’t know it yet.

The theater was the past, certainly past its prime. I mean, it was falling apart. Of course, this didn’t matter to the owners and resident players. No. They, along with some very vocal locals, made their displeasure at our architectural rejuvenation services quite clear from the beginning. Marched with signs, shouted threats and obscenities at us, sent curses and hexes, performed black magic at the steps of our main office. Tried to sue us and halt our actions every which way. In other words, our future galleria was causing quite a stir.

We expected the pushback, even the name-calling. But when my partners and I returned to close out the deal, it was like the collective mood of the entire community had changed. Like there was an eerie void where they used to be friendly waves and chatter. People no longer smiled or greeted us with the usual small-town charm. Now the residents walked around in a gloomy daze, simply ignoring us. I almost preferred the old days, when people spat at us, told us we were taking away the heartbeat of the town, an establishment as old as the town itself. And as it turns out, this wasn’t too far off. Once we did our research—and yes, we did do our research—we found out just how ancient the place was, dating back to the colonial days. Well, ancient for America, anyway. True enough, before the town had sidewalks or sewers, they had The Lantern Theater. Even had the same lopsided sign.

So yes, we were quite aware before we began negotiations with the county that the theater was kind of a big deal to the townspeople. Not only was it the one thing to do there, the town also prided itself on the fact that the Lantern had been started by and consistently run by locals. Locals who even wrote and directed their own passion projects on its creaky, wobbly, could-give-way-at-any-moment stage. Plays, puppetry, pantomime, singing and dancing. There was always something for everyone, young and old. And through the years it had grown into an institution. This was not lost on us. We’re business people, not monsters.

But things change. Times change. I mean, look in your hand. With cell phones, little screens with endless possibilities of entertainment at our fingertips, who even thinks of the theater? And with how busy and fast-paced our lives are, who makes time for live entertainment anymore? The last time I saw anything live was when my husband took me to some dry, rambling two-person play for one of our first dates, thinking I was into that stuff. He never made that mistake again. Next time, I told him, take me to see The Boss. And make sure the vendors serve alcohol.

I see myself as learned, educated. And though I’m not exactly one for the performing arts, I could appreciate the architecture of the building for what it was, what it represented. It was like stepping into another time. And the theater did seem to have a unique aura about it, I’ll give it that (then, so do my gym socks). It was depressingly baroque, fascinating in an old-world way, if you’re into that sort of thing. And like any institution, it was said to be haunted. There were stories passed down about the ghosts that remained from the old days, kept their residence there.

That’s all the theater was good for at this point: rumors, tall tales. Basically, the town needed that old fire hazard like it needed another pothole. We were helping these people, couldn’t they see that? This town was dying, that’s why we came here.

“They say it’s built on sacred ground,” I remember Tom saying with a smirk, downing the last of his brandy and placing his glass back on the bar. The smirk remained as he turned on his stool to look at me, his dark eyes already hazy after one drink.

I laughed. “An old Indian burial ground?”

“Well, not exactly.”

“Tom. How much of a lightweight are you?”

His smirk turned into a grin. “The land has some deep, interesting roots. Supposedly. A lot of history.”

From the stool on the other side of me Jessica snorted, finishing her own drink. “What land doesn’t?”

The three of us jumped as a whiskey glass slammed down onto the bar next to us. An older gentleman with a long beard of gray turned and pointed at us with a slender, leathery finger. I recognized him as one of the regular stagehands from the theater. Remembered him always in a hurry, scurrying back and forth during our visits to the site, though still managing to give us the stink eye each time he passed. He had also been the loudest of the protesters. I guess he had been with The Lantern since he used to help out there as a teenager, like his father before him. So I expected him to scream more obscenities at us, maybe even break a glass or throw a punch, but when his mouth opened he said in a deep and cordial voice, “I have something for the three of you.”

With his other hand, the man reached into a duffle bag on the stool next to him. Tom, ever so chivalrous, stepped in front of Jessica and I. But instead of pulling out a weapon, the old man unveiled a glossy envelope, which he extended toward us.

Tom cleared his throat before reaching out, accepting it graciously.

“Uh. Thanks.”

The old man smiled, yellow cracked teeth showing through the gray whiskers. Then he turned, took his bag, and left.

My cohorts and I looked at each other, then down at the envelope.

As far as we knew, the season of programs was ended, all the actors had already dabbed their eyes and taken their final bows. But now there was this, this invitation. One last show, just for us.

“This for real?”

I glanced over at Jessica. “Sure looks for real.”

“The guy’s obviously crazy.”

“Isn’t everyone in this town?”

Tom just kept staring down at the invite in his hand. For someone who was never serious, I saw his eyes narrow, and I could tell he was perplexed, as we all were.

“A private show?”

Again, not the biggest theater fan. But this…seemed different. This seemed important. Important to the residents of the theater, anyway. It was more than a building to them. It was their livelihood, their passion, their dreams made real. There was too much comfort in nostalgia for them to see that the building was just a building. One that smelled like rat piss and moldy seats.

My associates and I were finally able to peel our eyes away from our strange summons and order another round. After weighing how a refusal would be perceived, we decided that we could stomach a couple hours of whatever trite song-and-dance they so eagerly wanted us to experience. It would be a showing of good will. Real estate was a game, a game we had won. But we didn’t want to appear unsportsmanlike. Plus, we wanted people to come to the new shops, not shun them because we didn’t attend their stupid show.

The little theater troupe was in their death throes, this was their swan sang. The least we could do was show up. The show was for us, after all.

The date on the invitation was still a month away. The same week the theater was to be torn down.

“I’m sure we’re in for a real barn burner.” I remember saying.

I wasn’t wrong.

#

The night came. My fellow special guests and I arrived together, each of us dressed to the nines, ready to show these inscrutable thespians that we had taken their challenge. As we made our way through the lobby I reminded Tom and Jessica to keep an open mind, or at least appear like they were.

We entered the theater, took our tight uncomfortable seats. The invitation wasn’t kidding. Besides the three of us, the place was completely empty. Unless you count the vacantly staring ticket taker and usher. And even they seemed to disappear once the house lights faded.

I leaned over to Tom. “What do you think this is going to be?”

“Who knows. Maybe they’ll go out with some classic Shakespeare. Or it could be a musical. Maybe Hello, Dolly?”

“Either way, I should have brought my earplugs.”

I heard loud rustling from the seat on my other side and turned to Jessica, who was crunching away on some candy she had snuck in. I put my finger to my lips.

“Shhh…”

Sheepishly, Jessica swallowed and slid the box of candy back into her handbag.

Music crept in, but it didn’t sound like Broadway. No, it was discordant, experimental, with odd instruments and strange overlays of white noise mixed in. It sounded like it was coming from an old tape recorder or even a gramophone, definitely not anything from this century. Dense smoke crept in as well. It came from both sides of the stage, billowing toward the seats, closing in around us.

“Who knew they had these production values?” whispered Jessica.

“Shh.”

 “Oh come on, Dawn. It’s just us here. Lighten up.”

“Yeah.” Tom chuckled. “This will be a hoot.” Though I noticed as he leaned forward he was clenching his fists, swallowing hard.

Then the curtains opened.

It began with darkness. A single spotlight emerged, one that started small but slowly grew larger, wider over the stage, until there was a brilliant flash. Then blackness again.

We had expected something artsy-fartsy and weird, avant-garde or whatever. “Pretentious,” is what Tom ventured. But this…this was beyond anything we could have imagined. It was like a bizarre improv, or an abstract performance piece. There was something ritualistic about it, unhinged and primal, something…unsettling.

As I glanced between Tom and Jessica, I watched their expressions change. Saw them go from bemusement to surprise, then shock, then horror.

You want to know what we were seeing, what was happening up on that stage. Right. That’s the whole point of this. For me to provide you details of what I saw that night.

Well. I wish I could tell you.

It’s all a blur now. All I know is that the show, whatever it was, took hold of me, and I couldn’t look away. It’s like I was hypnotized. And now, thinking back, the visions in my memory are just as hazy as the fog that covered everything.

I remember certain aspects. Mostly vague outlines, of performers and puppets. There was dancing, writhing. I remember masks. Horrifying masks. Some witchlike, some more like animals or creatures, others disfigured or mostly blank.

At first I thought they were going into some sort of Kabuki thing, though the masks didn’t resemble anything I recognized from Japanese culture. No, they were more like visions of things you only see in your nightmares. Strange creatures, mysterious and otherworldly.

There was likely symbolism, some obvious metaphor that this private audience, being of the more left-brained variety, perhaps was not fully grasping.

Then, just as the show really started to kick into gear, everything stopped. The lights went up and the music and the action on stage came to an abrupt halt. One of the performers placed a slender hand over his mask and lowered it, revealing a shadowy face that was somehow worse than the mask.

“We don’t usually do this,” he said, his voice booming (what’s it called when you feel something in your chest? Deep In your bones?), though there was no microphone. “But then, things are changing, aren’t they?” The actor smiled—a haunting, terrible smile. “We’d like a couple of volunteers to offer their assistance. To join us on stage.”

The audience of three turned to one another. I was shaking my head as Tom shrugged and raised a hand. Jessica did the same.

“What are you guys doing?”

Tom looked over at me. “Volunteering. I don’t see anyone else who’s going to.”

Jessica was already getting up out of her seat, looking away dramatically and putting on a mid-Atlantic accent. “Excuse us while we become stahs, dahhling.” She giggled and the two of them scurried down the row and then the aisle, made their way toward the stage. I watched them, still shaking my head. At least I couldn’t say they weren’t keeping an open mind.

As Tom and Jessica stepped up onto the stage, the curtains were already closing. They both turned to face the audience (now consisting entirely of me), still grinning and showboating, blowing kisses along with little bows and waves. Then the drapes came together.

This is when things…took a turn.

When the curtains were drawn once more, the blaring disjointed music returned, as did the masked performers. Tom and Jessica appeared, now in ripped and torn clothing. What played out from here were gruesome scenes in the midst of fog and flashing lights. Scenes of sacrifice, bloody and primal. Of torture, violent and depraved. My mouth dropped open and remained that way for the rest of the horrid, sickening show. It was madness, brutal savagery unlike anything I had witnessed before.

This part, unfortunately, I remember much more vividly.

My colleagues were now joined on stage by large-scale puppetry, so mammoth they must have been manipulated either backstage or from below, by systems of pulleys or some other unseen device. Though in that moment I swear to you, these huge terrifying monsters were beyond real. They were hyper real, surreal, the whole goddamn thing was surreal. Like the props and scenery and the whole nightmarish world onstage had come alive. I couldn’t understand what was happening to my friends, or why I suddenly found myself unable to move.

I know it makes no sense. But I just kept telling myself, it’s all part of the show.

 

I remember in college I read about something called Theatre of Cruelty, which came about in the early twentieth-century in response to Realism. A type of ceremonial performance more like an exorcism, designed to shock and mystify, where the spectator is exposed rather than protected. Where the lines between performer and audience are blurred. The spectators are in fact brought into the show, forced to engage and interact with it, to become a part of it. I remember the stage being described as a constantly shifting vortex, with the audience trapped inside it, powerless. Spoken dialogue, in this kind of act, was unnecessary. There were only sounds, movement, chaos.

Is that what this was? I hoped so, for Tom and Jessica’s sake.

The performers writhed and danced around them in some kind of ritual, shouting unintelligible things, taking turns lunging at them, streaking their faces with dark paint. At least I think it was paint. But this was only the beginning of their torture­—and mine, sitting there, watching. The performers strung them from ropes, whipped them with leather straps, spread their limbs apart with chains and archaic machinery. The witches were watching and cackling. The creatures were drooling, licking and gnawing on Tom and Jessica, slashing at them with their claws, their eyes rolling back into their thick leathery heads with pleasure. It appeared as though pieces were being ripped and torn from their bodies. The creatures growled deeply, horribly as they doused their victims in some sort of saliva that burned, scarred and scalded their faces and bodies. I could hear it. Hear their skin slowly disintegrating. Hear Tom and Jessica screaming. Their cries echoed through the empty theater, somehow louder than the now deafening cacophony of sound and music.

I…I wish I could tell you I got up out of my seat, shouted for the madness to stop. That I ran to the stage and tried to save Tom and Jessica. But like I said, I was frozen in my seat, both my brain and body unable to function. My heart was racing faster than ever. I couldn’t even close my eyes, pretend this wasn’t happening. Even as the tears flowed from my eyes and blurred my vision, I had to keep watching.

When it was finally over, and the curtains closed for the last time, I sat there, still unable to move. I stared at the drapes, waiting for them to open again. Waiting for the performers to come back onstage, take their masks off and bow, gesture for their smiling, unharmed volunteers to step out and join them.

But there was no encore. No final bows.

I never saw Tom or Jessica again.

Once the remaining smoke cleared, all was still. It was like no one had ever been on that stage at all. Like it had all been a bad dream.

And for a while, that’s what I treated that night as. I left the theater, called for a cab, watched the lights go by from the backseat as I sat there silently. I didn’t even mention anything to my husband when I got home. He asked how the show was. I told him, “Great.”

“At least they went out on a high note,” he said, going back to fixing himself a late-night sandwich.

I smiled, unable to feel my face.

“Yes,” I said. Then I went upstairs to bed. It felt like I was floating.

When I woke in the morning, it really was like I had dreamed it. I yawned, reached for my cell phone on the nightstand, first called Jessica, then Tom. No answers. I texted. No responses. There was a lurching, then a stabbing sensation, sudden and painful, in the pit of my stomach. I broke out in a sweat. Felt like I couldn’t breathe. My husband rolled over, asked me if I was okay. That was when I screamed.

#

When I finally got up the nerve to go back to the theater, it was completely vacant. Which, yeah, of course it was. It was no longer in business, about to be torn apart. Still, there was no sign even of Jessica’s handbag, the one she had left on the seat when she went up on stage. And of course, there were no cameras, no closed-circuit TV anywhere inside or outside the theater, that may have captured evidence of what happened that night. But you know this already. So I phoned the former employees, the owners. When I mentioned the show, asked where the performers had gone, where they had taken my colleagues, all I got were confused voices on the other end. They couldn’t tell me, they said, because they had no idea what I was talking about.

I went back to the bar, where we had received the handwritten invitation from the old stagehand. No sign of him­. And to no surprise­, the patrons weren’t exactly accommodating. They all said that they had never even seen anyone matching his description.

Then I remembered, the invite. The invite was proof, physical evidence that all of this happened.

Tom took the invite. It was in his pocket when he was brought onstage.

And now, just like him, it was gone.

#

I carry on with our project, solo. Oversee as much of the development as I can. Demolition of The Lantern Theatre has been completed. Construction is already under way for the new galleria. I still haven’t woken from my trance. I visit the site, watch the brick and wood crumble and fall, the concrete and stone be built up. It all feels unreal, but the work continues. It must.

This is the march of time, this is progress. Along the way there must be casualties, sacrifices made. I believe in this. Development is my gift to society, my art. It’s not the theater, but it’s important, necessary.

Still, there are fleeting moments, where I will hear something. A wail, a cry. Or see something. A mask, a creature. Vague outlines, half in shadow. I do a double take, and there’s never anything there. But even with my eyes closed I see my former colleagues up on that stage. Their strained, tear-stained faces. Can still hear them scream. They were my business partners, they were my friends. Hell, Jessica and I went to college together, roomed together. And now I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again. Though I pull back every curtain, hoping my friends are standing on the other side.

I escaped with my life, but I fear for my sanity.

Whenever I close my eyes, it’s the show I see. I’m back in that narrow splintered seat, staring at the stage. Seeing things I can’t comprehend, that I can’t un-see. Images burned into my brain, yet if I think of them for longer than a second, they evaporate into nothingness.

They left me alive for a reason. I realize that now.

They want me to tell you this. They want that final performance to be recorded, in some way. Want it to live on. That was the whole point, you see?

Stories, myths, legends. Small towns run on tall tales. Stories, like live performances, have an aura, a unique energy to them. Like a special flame that isn’t easily extinguished. Its glow is most special to the ones closest to it. They want that light to linger. They want the theater to stay, to live forever. To always be a part of the town. One way or another.

I will say, it was a hell of a show.

Guess you had to be there.

Marc Dickerson is a writer and filmmaker from Philadelphia, PA. He has written short stories, graphic novels, screenplays, and has recently completed his first prose novel, ART FARM. He mostly enjoys creating dark comedies as well as fiction that incorporates unique or surreal elements. His work has appeared online and in publications such as Culture Cult Magazine and Burial Day.

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