I knew nothing about James Michael Shoberg’s Bloody Hell walking into the unassuming McKeesport Little Theater, nor did I understand what, exactly, Rage of the Stage was. In many ways, this blind approach to the show was not a bad thing. I left the theater feeling bewildered and exhausted; it seemed to me that I had failed at feeling whatever Bloody Hell insisted I feel, and yet my post-show chatter wasn’t negative so much as it was a mutual series of pulse checks (did I see that? Did that whole thing with the baby actually happen? Who slipped me the peyote?). Bloody Hell didn’t seem real, yet real it was, and thankfully so, because it is bizarre, brazenly over the top, confused in its message and execution, and completely unlike anything else in Pittsburgh right now.
Bloody Hell is many things. First and foremost, it is a retro-futuristic retelling of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that translates Dracula’s supernatural ability to seduce and destroy into an immortal gladiator who has sex with pretty much half the cast. Although the story begins with the long past inception of this character, it quickly cuts to the far future in “New Britain.” New Britain is a lot like Bram Stoker’s Britain, with class, distinction, and frilly dresses being a major visual centerpiece. It’s all classic stuff, with the major exception being there is, for whatever reason, a laser prison.
Admittedly, Rage Against the Stage shows may in fact all be set in a kind of meta-textual universe in which the round peg of classic literature is slammed into the square hole of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman-style science fiction, but aside from a few sidelong references to other literary characters who do not make an appearance, this is not a subject of concern. Suffice it to say, a kind of faithful version of Dracula unfolds.
Andreas O’Rourke plays Dracul with action hero confidence and control, which is a good thing, because he is often an object of reassurance in a show that can sometimes feel like the final stretch of a game of Jenga. This is partially due to the fact that the play has a ton of production elements in motion on what feels like a limited budget, but it’s also partially because the performances are uneven; I couldn’t help but wonder whether New Britain’s defining cultural touchstone is that the dialects of all its citizens sound completely different.
Dan Finkel, who plays Dracul’s broken conscience, feels ready for a small part on Game of Thrones. He embodies smarm, totally has that Kubrick-stare thing down, and is somewhat wasted, given that his character’s reflection on Dracul’s nature is possibly the only really human element of the play. Even the play’s heroes, played simply and aptly by Michelangelo Guantonio, Ryan Ott, Mark Harris, and Macy Mcknight, are simply good; there are no defining human features to them with which to remember or distinguish their characters, except that a few of them adopt the equally singular moniker of bad. There is a very bizarre plot twist in which a character recounts a forgotten instance of sexual coercion with a few of the villains, but a quick apology interrupts any opportunity for the character’s ‘dark night of the soul’ moment.
And then there is Joseph A. Roots, who plays Prime Sovereign Godalming. He is onstage for a great portion of the show, yet appears to be still feeling out the clunky posh-British-guy humor his character has been saddled with; he, along with Brian Seymour, who plays a Texan stereotype with an uncomfortably loud pop gun, and Lesley Carlin, who nobly attempts to normalize a Van Helsing whose every line is wordy and forced, feels at odds with who they’re meant to be.
Although these players are approaching the show like a shapeless connect-the-dots puzzle, they all share one thing in common, and that is the likable, undeniable quality of a cast of performers who are going for it. Even at the play’s most slowly indulgent, no actor left any scenery un-chewed, which is an excellent quality for a play that features not one, but several scenes in which actors vomit gooey blood substitutes into each other’s mouths.
The greatest problem with Bloody Hell is its disinterest in the emotional state of its characters. There is a lack of emotional consequence to a great deal of character deaths. In this play, a character losing their lover is not a moment of deep and human sadness, but a cheap motivator for the purposes of plot. One character dies, so another acts, and so on. Although no adaptation should have to recreate the emotional beats of its forebears, between the subtle undermining of self in Bram Stoker’s Dracula or F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and the explosive murder-orgy action of Bloody Hell, it’s not hard to decide which thematic approach has more layers.
Bloody Hell also has a pacing issue. It isn’t that it’s too slow or flippant, but that it transitions from neck-snapping action, to bisexual blood orgy to 45-minute long Austenian comedy in the span of only three or four scenes. It’s not poor pacing – it’s crazy pacing. I felt as if I knew every twist of the plot at every moment. Yet, I had absolutely no idea of what I’d be seeing next. While Shoberg’s script felt anything but mature – gory power fantasies and half naked actresses reflect an adolescent effort at best – it is wholly unique in its brazen disregard for genre convention.
Any reader would be forgiven for assuming I’m trying to bury the play under a sheet of irony, but my interest as a theater-goer in schlock value is very small. More than anything, I’m interested in new experiences. While Bloody Hell’s over the top violence and self-serious attempts at portraying deviant sexuality will generate outright dismissal in some theatergoers, I honestly couldn’t keep myself from cheering for Shoberg’s inability to do anything other than put on what he thinks is cool, because no one else is doing this. Sure, you could see yet another retelling of an old classic – or you could go to the Mckeesport Little Theater and have an experience you’ll literally never forget.
Bloody Hell is the theatrical equivalent of finding some bizarre movie you’ve never heard of in a bargain bin, realizing you’ve never seen anything like it before when it’s done, and inviting all your friends over so they can see it too. It is scrappy. It is messy. It is cheesy. It is sincere. And more than anything, it’s kinda lovable.
Special thanks to Rage of the Stage Players for complimentary press tickets! Would you like to see more articles and reviews from Pittsburgh in the Round? Then help us out and donate to our indiegogo!
Bloody Hell continues at the McKeesport Little Theater through July 9th. For tickets and more information, check out the Rage of the Stage Facebook page here.