Claims to Queer Monstrosity in
Beware the Terror of Gaylord Manor
A Halloween play is a spooky play is a monstrous play is a very, very queer play. Though there are undercurrents of queerness in most modern horror stories, this representation is not often fully centered. However, with the gifted writer and director BenDeLaCreme at the helm of “Beware the Terror of Gaylord Manor,” the tangling of the monstrous and the queer is rightfully pushed wholly to the forefront of the narrative.
DeLa, the drag queen persona of Seattle performer Benjamin Putnam, stars in her own production, which carried a sold-out run at the ACTLab theater from October 12th to the 29th. Buoyed by original compositions by Major Scales--the creative partner of fellow Rupaul’s Drag Race alum, Jinkx Monsoon-- the play riffs on monster movies of the 1950s while also offering original commentary on the nature of queer desire and the development of chosen family.
In a 2016 article for Paste, writer Kyle Turner explains that “‘Monster’ seems like a pejorative term, of course, but that kind of rhetoric—queer as deviant, pervert, etc.—is very real.” In the context of horror narratives—spanning back to the Universal Studio monster movies that showed the hulking failures of Frankenstein’s monster or the cyclical bloodlust of The Wolf Man—the monstrous has barely ever existed as mere subtext. The otherness of monstrous figures has always been distinctly coded as queer. Most recently, prior to Pride month celebrations in 2017, a meme about the central monster from the 2014 Australian horror film The Babadook spawned a wave of viral coopting of the character as a queer hero. Writing for Buzzfeed, queer Chicano critic John Paul Brammer only half jokingly observes that “Now, when LGBT rights are under attack and the future is anything but certain, there has emerged among some queer people a renewed interest in drawing strength not from institutions, which have largely failed us, but from our countercultural roots, our historic defiance of norms. Oh, so you think queer people are monsters? We’ll show you monsters. And this time, no one’s locking us back in a cage.”
This transformative view on monsters, and the monstrous, is on clear display in DeLa’s production at ACT.
In a jaunty number at the beginning of the production that calls to mind a cabaret hybrid of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank N. Furter, Count Baron Von Gaylord (Major Scales) explains the haunted history of his family home while the Gaylord Ensemble of dancers acts out the grisly fates of former visitors to the manor. Abruptly, DeLa’s Patsy Jejune bursts into the scene. Having crashed her car on a rainy Halloween night, Patsy is seeking shelter and perhaps a phone to call her emotionally abusive sister. Quickly, the ingenue Patsy is enveloped into Count Baron’s machinations to claim a soul for the manor at the persistent nagging of his undead mother’s dark and overbearing bidding.
As Count Baron introduces Patsy to his other visitors for the evening, one thing becomes very clear: Almost every character in this play is queer as hell.
Leonora Doddington (the perfectly brazen Scott Shoemaker), a psychic paranormal investigator, is robust in her attentions for Patsy. Count Baron constantly evades his mother’s desire that he kill a nice girl at home. He is also close “roommates” with probably (obviously) werewolf Lunk—played by Faggedy Randy--who is somewhere between a wolf and a bear in tight denim shorts over a G-string.
The production of the play is very tight. Though the theater in the round set-up obscures some movement by the cast, the Gaylord Ensemble dances through intervening scenes to mask the movements of principal actors as a kind of diegetic distraction. The dancers for this play are absolutely stunning as they evoke the hauntings throughout the manor by shadowy figures, skeletons, ghosts, witches, mummies, and floating Jack ‘o Lanterns. The puppetry by Sann Hall of the grotesque corpse of Mother Von Gaylord is striking. A vampire’s dance of seduction by burlesque star The One and Only Inga is a literal showstopper. During Count Baron’s numbers, he is accompanied by a chorus of the Margaret Keane-esque portraits that hang in the corners of the stage. These portraits, operating much like the villainous wall art in a Scooby Doo cartoon, sing and roll their eyes in time with the music. The play’s design is perfectly evocative of DeLa’s campy, kitschy aesthetic and does great work in setting up her reversal of horror tropes.
In “Beware the Terror,” the characters deliberately poke at and undermine the deeply sexist tropes found in most horror films. The fact that almost every main character is performing in drag enables DeLa and her cast to effectively destabilize the inherently gendered expectations of horror narratives.
A drag king doubter, the sexist skeptic Dr. Dudley Doddington (Mandy Price), ascribes all paranormal activity to the feeble minds of the women in the manor. At one point, he condescendingly ghost-splains to Patsy as she runs screaming from the dancing skeletons that have been parading through her bedroom. Dr. Doddington deadpans “What you saw was actually this lamp!” The inability to believe women is a fixture of horror narratives, specifically doubts by male experts that further add to female protagonist’s inability to ward off the evils that have been reduced to evidence of feminine hysteria.
Throughout the play, the two drag queens done up as Final Girls fall slowly into a psychic bond that affirms their lesbian desire. As Patsy questions whether she might become one of the monsters that surround her in the manor, it becomes clear that her potential to become a monster is linked to her burgeoning acknowledgment of her identity as a lesbian woman.
However, the end of the play leaves a question about which queer characters get to become monsters. In a play full of queer characters who are explicit in their expressed desire, DeLa’s script—at no fault to the delightful performers—muddles the message. If, as John Paul Brammer suggests, to embrace the monstrous is to embrace marginalized status and to find family and community among the outsiders, then “Beware the Terror” does not offer a clear statement on which queer characters have the ability to take up this identity. Ultimately, the ending of the play reproduces the exceptional ability of some queer outsiders to achieve self-acceptance.
- Produced by: ACT Lab - ACT Theater
- Written and Directed by BenDeLaCreme
- Original Compositions by Major Scales
- October 12th-29th, 2017 performed at The Bullitt Cabaret at ACT Theater
- Review Lead: Olivia Jean Hernández / Review Team: Emily George