Anatomy of a nightmare
Colin Grube, left, and Dashiell Moyse in a scene from “American Gothic.”

Anatomy of a nightmare

With ‘American Gothic,’ Josh Moyse and Shoot the Moon dream up a ghoulish tribute to the horror anthology genre

BRATTLEBORO — Joshua Moyse has stitched together the stuff of nightmares to conjure up a strange and scary evening of theater.

For its fourth annual Halloween spectacular, Shoot the Moon, the theater company-in-residence at Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery, pays homage to the horror anthology genre with American Gothic: An Anthology of Terrifying Tales.

Moyse's script for American Gothic is “in the tradition of CreepShow, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Black Mirror, where thrills and chills are delivered in sudden bursts designed to shock audiences with terrifying twists,” according to a news release.

Presenting a totally original work for its Halloween spectacular is something new for Shoot the Moon.

“For the last few years, we've been doing literary adaptations, such as Frankenstein, Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, and Poe stories,” says Moyse. “What we have never really been able to do is dive into the tropes of the horror movie.”

The narrative frame, as described in the news release for American Gothic, focuses on Joe, who is called to a country house for a possible job. Once Joe arrives, however, he realizes that he's been there many times before - in his dreams.

Terrifying tales

Other guests arrive with their own strange and terrifying tales: a man who is stalked by Death, a harrowing night babysitting, a ghostly game of hide and seek, a nostalgic trip to Lovers' Lane, and a ride on the ghastly Night Train. Joe can't help but feel that he's forgotten something, an important detail. Will Joe remember it in time? Or will his dream become the nightmare he fears?

“This format allows us to explore classic horror scenes in 5 to 12 minutes,” says Moyse. “The fear can come and go. Then we move onto the next one with its slightly different flavor.”

The American Gothic cast comprises familiar Shoot the Moon Theater Company members Elias Burgess, Terry Carter, Josh Goldstein, Colin Grube, Jennifer Moyse, and John Ogorzalek, along with newcomers Lionel Chute, Fiona Goodman, and Dashiell Moyse. Alistair Follansbee serves as Stage Manager.

Shoot the Moon was founded in 2016 by Artistic Director Joshua Moyse to stage its first Halloween event. The company produces three shows a season culminating with their annual Halloween spectacular.

“Doing an original show for this year's Halloween presentation has been a natural progression,” says Moyse, adding that the previous adaptations of iconic horror texts offered some clues.

“How I approached Frankenstein last year indicates the fashion we were moving away from adapting from sole source material,” Moyse says. “While the spine of the Frankenstein story was indeed Mary Shelley's novel, this narrative has been done so many times and in so many ways that in the popular imagination, there no longer can be a definitive text to adapt. In fact, there are too many source materials.”

Piecing it together

So perhaps inevitably Moyse found himself using bits and pieces from all over the place to create a hodge-podged, yet delightful, version of the Frankenstein story.

“This year, I was not sure what I was going to do since I felt that we had exhausted the classic horror stories,” Moyse continues. “But I long have had a soft spot for those anthology horror movies like Tales from the Crypt or Trick or Treat, and I began considering if I could adapt something like that.”

Initially, Moyse intended to adapt a single film, one of the best horror anthologies, the classic British thriller from the 1940s, Dead of Night.

In many ways, American Gothic remains indebted to that film, which can still be seen in various aspects of the finished show, but Moyse soon decided to create his own stories for American Gothic.

“I have still kept the structure with the framing device of Dead of Night, but instead began tapping into other iconic scary movies for inspiration, motifs like the babysitter, hide and seek, or the parked car on Lover's Lane,” he says. “Although used in countless movies, the sources of many of these stories are not specific but are urban legends or campfire tales.”

American Gothic consists of five stories and the framing device. The production lasts only about an hour, so things keep moving fast.

“I wanted things to come and go quickly, like in a nightmare,” says Moyse. “While writing the script, as often as I could, I tried to make room for one more story. I attempted to give the show an atmosphere of hallucination, where everything shifts and moves erratically.

“When we did a read-through with the cast, I asked if it made sense. They said it did, and frankly I was disappointed. Honestly, I hoped that things made less rather than more sense, as in a dream.”

With so many situations to represent, Moyse concedes that American Gothic has been elaborate to stage, especially given the smallness of the Hooker-Dunham Theater.

“We have a cast of nine, which is of epic proportions in the tight space [where] we are performing,” Moyse says. “Everyone plays more than one part, although each has one story that is primarily his or her own.”

The usual suspects

Many in the cast are the regulars who have performed in most of the Shoot the Moon productions.

“Shoot the Moon has a solid core of dedicated artists who have become very skilled at what they do,” Moyse says.

American Gothic will also include some actors who are new to the company.

“My son Dashiell, who is 11, will be joining us, as well as Fiona Goodman who is a junior in high school,” Moyse says. “While our older actors can and have played younger than themselves, it is always great to have the energy of the real thing. So now our cast ranges in age from 11 to those in their 70s.”

Shoot the Moon started technical rehearsals on American Gothic much earlier than usual.

“This show has a tremendous amount of sound cues, things like the noise of the radio or an elevator door opening,” says Moyse. “They need to be spot-on to be effective.”

While the stories take place in many places, American Gothic does not represent any specific location but Joe's country house in the framing story.

“Everything else must be conveyed through action, sound and light, explains Moyse. “So you see the technical aspects of this show are very important to get right.”

The set also plays a major role in establishing the tone of the evening.

“We have a red and black curtain, which is both cozy and gothic,” Moyse says. “The stage is painted in forced perspective of white and black. Some in the cast thought it looks Edward Gorey-ish. The comparison isn't bad since we wanted the setting to seem like a location in a dream.

“We have included an eight-foot moon covered in twill fabric, which gives a surreal feel to the surroundings. I can assure you that Hooker-Dunham Theater has become a place like you've never seen before.”

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