The first two rows of the black-box theater at Ramón C. Cortines High School's Theatre Arts Academy have been designated a “splash zone,” so before the play can begin, the audience members seated there are given giant trash bags with a warning to cover up. They put them on, laughing and curious. It's as if the audience for this high school musical is about to go through a tornado drill.
Not long into the first act, though, it becomes clear: Holy shit, they are not messing around. Onstage, a small team of travelers is lost when a maniac comes bursting out of nowhere, tearing off one man's arm and beating another guy with it, before biting big chunks out of their necks. Blood streams everywhere, in upward geysers and undulating sprays, against the black floor and all over the front rows of the sold-out crowd of 180 gape-jawed observers.
Toto, we are definitely not in Kansas anymore. Hell, these students make Sweeney Todd look as wholesome as The Sound of Music. In Cannibal! The Musical, Cortines students sing and dance their way through a seemingly endless parade of dismembered limbs, slit throats, impalements and even bear traps — along with seven gallons of fake blood.
Based on the life and times of Alferd Packer, the only man in U.S. history ever convicted of cannibalism, Cannibal! The Musical was South Park co-creator Trey Parker's student film project at the University of Colorado. Given a theatrical release by trash-film connoisseurs Troma in 1996 after South Park exploded, it has become a cult classic and been adapted as a musical by community theater groups nationwide.
The film's co-producer, Jason McHugh, attended the Cortines production's opening night. As licensor for the rights, he attends every show he can, “within striking distance.” To the best of his knowledge, this is the first time it's graced a high school stage.
“The only other students I know of were at a Phoenix high school, and they were kicked off campus by an assistant principal,” he says. “The school here in L.A. is much different and much more supportive of the arts, and it was nice to see everyone working together without drama or controversy. And of course,” McHugh adds, in a burst of excitement, “the splash zone was fantastic.”
Cortines, which opened three years ago, is the only high school in the L.A. Unified School District dedicated to the arts. While the school stages faculty-produced plays in a much larger campus theater, Cannibal! was selected as this year's student-run production. The students handled everything from casting and directing to lighting and choreography — and, of course, mixing up huge amounts of fake blood.
Previous student productions were Peter Pan and Hello, Dolly, says Assistant Principal Ken Martinez — “so this is a marked departure.” Still, after student director Ethan Roy sold the faculty on the play, he got enthusiastic buy-in.
“I even brought in a foot pump from an air mattress to help with the gushing,” Martinez reports. “My favorite part is when the guy gets his leg caught in a bear trap and the blood gushes from the back of the stage and arcs all the way over to the splash zone. It's a wonderful moment in theater.”
Of the splash zone, he says, “It's my secret dream to take off my tie and sit there myself, but I don't want to take a seat away from the kids.”
Student productions normally play for just one weekend. But this one proved so popular that a second weekend was added, and then a third (scheduled to kick off Friday; for ticket information, go to seatyourself.biz/vapa9). While the show isn't exactly ready for Broadway – the young actors often are more enthusiastic than experienced — the sense of fun is infectious.
Incredibly, five lead roles had to be recast just two weeks before opening night. Blame “creative differences.”
“I thought adapting the movie script, with its big musical numbers and tons of outdoor scenery, to the stage would be the most difficult part,” Roy, the student director, says. “But making sure everyone learns their lines and blocking on such short notice was even more challenging.”
Student Ben Newman portrays the musical murderer Alferd Packer in the play. He's experiencing on-campus celebrity: Students quote from the play, ask him to take off his shirt (which he does, twice, in the production) and even ask for autographs. He loves the audience interaction: “You can break the fourth wall, spray them with guts, give them a lap dance. They've all loved it, especially with the ponchos.”
The show's MVP, though, may well be student James Abroms, who plays only minor roles onstage, but also created the blood effects.
“The big blood gush from the bear trap is done by three syringes being shot at once by people behind the stage,” Abroms explains. “We used a douche attached to a tube, and glued to a pipe and attached to an actor's arm, for the arm-bleeding moments like dismemberments, and an air-pressure device that shoots blood out of a tube on an actor who gets shot in the head while singing about building a snowman.
“But, really, it's just water and red food coloring,” Abroms concludes. “It all comes down to this: I know that if you put too much water in too small a plastic container, it's going to explode.”