Singing cannibals in a fetish shop?
Beyond undoubtedly being someone's sadomasochistic sex fantasy, it was also a signature snapshot of the upstart Insurgo Theater Movement under the leadership of ex-Californian John Beane.
For the literal-minded, relax: We're not referring to actual serenading flesh-eaters in leather hoods snapping bullwhips, but 2008's "Cannibal! The Musical," at the Onyx Theatre, tucked into a sexual accouterment establishment called The Rack on East Sahara Avenue.
Quirky stagecraft -- also including a female "Hamlet," an avant-garde "Lysistrata" and "The Insect Play," among others -- is the hallmark of Insurgo, which Beane brought to Las Vegas in 2007, its deeply alternative passions enduring in a scene where many self-styled theater renegades have declared grand artistic plans, then vanished.
After departing the Onyx, Beane and company open a new space all their own tonight on East Karen Avenue in Commercial Center's New Orleans Square, not far from their old digs. No longer surrounded by chaps and collars, they debut with "Murder Party." Here, Beane waxes, well, alternative about theater:
Question: Wasn't "Murder" a movie?
Answer: We adapted it. It was the 2007 Slam Dance winner, a horror-art satire. It takes place Halloween night in the late-'90s art scene in Brooklyn and the deadly consequences for the posers therein. It's a dark comedy satirizing the sanctity with which artists treat themselves.
Q: Will moving to a new theater change your approach to a theater season?
A: We have two full seasons launching simultaneously, a season of originals and a mainstage season and we'll run (shows) at different times, staggering the days. It's what we've been moving toward since we started at the Onyx. With original works, it's the only way to keep theater alive, out of a museum. In late January, we'll open "Othello" which I'm directing and playing Othello. We're not black-facing it but we're rockin' it out.
Q: Why did you leave the Onyx?
A: It was just growing pains. We have a very prolific agenda. We're not looking to trot out one or two productions a year, we're interested in theater as lifestyle, as a living art form. In the new space, it's just us. I've got five writers now, eight directors, 30 actors. At the Onyx, we were learning how to raise and build a theater company, but (Onyx owner Michael Morse) wanted to move toward what they're doing now, like "Naked Boys Singing" and the drag shows. He's the West Hollywood of Vegas, which is great. Meanwhile we're doing "Hamlet."
Q: How did the Onyx's, well, colorful environment impact Insurgo?
A: That helped us more than hurt us, the infamy of it. It was a great fit when we started. It was never an ideological problem. It was sometimes a physical problem. Crackheads wandering onstage, the whole detritus of that scene.
Q: What's the new theater called?
A: The Insurgo Theater, but we're also calling the space "The Bastard."
Q: How do you explain how your alternative vision succeeded here?
A: We didn't get into town to revitalize the scene or put out a release about reviving the contemporary culture. We're here to do theater for real, to beat the (expletive) out of it. But you have to be as lusty in the business end as you are about the art, which seems repulsive to some people making the art scene. It's irresponsible not to do it. But there's a responsibility that the content be completely startling and not beholden to the business. Patrons deserve it and the actors deserve it. And then one crazy bastard, someone when everyone says "no, no, no, no," they say "continue, continue, continue."
Q: What explains your passion for theater and for making this successful?
A: We're not about being a successful theater company, then end of sentence. We're about creating a phenomenon. It's not about fitting into the mold. One of the oldest traditions is feeding us to the lions because we suck, and there's a reason for it. Can you imagine if that was still in place? How few theater companies there would be, and we'd be better for it. But they had the courage back in the day to actually go up and say, "OK, with those stakes, I have something to say."
Q: Did you ever worry that your audience would not expand beyond the downtown arts crowd?
A: We've enjoyed a general progression in all facets of the demographics. Some of the most startling things have come out of the mouths of the quaintest grandmothers upon seeing our shows.
Q: Did you ever consider packing it up and returning to California?
A: I go back in triumph, or I don't go back. I came here to build this and this will be built.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@review journal.com or 702-383-0256.