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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
If you think a "scary play" should include ghosts, possession, and a skeleton sitting next to you in the seventh row, then The Cheaters Club has got you covered. The latest from the Amoralists, it follows a group of siblings and friends who head to Savannah to get drunk, go wild, and cheat on their spouses. Only… oops… they check into a haunted inn where there are demons in the dolls and staff members stealing souls.
But The Cheaters Club, which is now in previews at the Abrons Arts Center, is scary in other ways, too. Sometimes, the supernatural hijinks pull supposedly progressive characters into the mindsets of the past, so that African-Americans and gay people find themselves trapped by old, oppressive stereotypes. And sometimes, the characters don't even need a metaphysical nudge to act like fools. When some of the cheating men treat local women like chattel, it's mostly liquor that pushes them along. The creepy hotel just underlines their monstrous behavior.
At first, these critiques are barely perceptible, since the play, which is written and directed by Derek Ahonen, the Amoralists' associate artistic director, barrels along with a manic sense of fun. By the conclusion, however, it's hard to miss that certain characters are possessed by the tortured spirits of their ancestors or that the American flag covers one of the inn's most horrible secrets.
"That's what the play's about," says Ahonen. "The old world versus the modern world. America as it was and as it is. We think we're making a huge difference as a society, but we still have all these problems with race and homosexuality. They're just masked a little differently now."
Ahonen could have aired these ideas in a straightforward issue play, but that wouldn't make sense for the Amoralists. The company is known for ambitious, highly physical, and agreeably unhinged work that guarantees both visceral and intellectual jolts. (To learn more, watch this documentary.)
In The Cheaters Club, this wild style keeps the show from getting preachy. "You get to lure people in with the idea that they're going to come see a fun ghost story," says James Kautz, the company's artistic director and an actor in this production. "Then you challenge them along the way to think about how they personally feel about their own politics or their own sexuality or their ideas about monogamy."
Some of the production's energy surely comes from how quickly it was created. Whereas some plays are workshopped for years before they ever see a theatre, Ahonen only had the idea for The Cheaters Club a year ago, and the serious work didn't begin until February. To launch such a massive production in just six months---it features 26 actors and a massive set---the entire company had to trust each other. There was no time to get precious or defensive.
"No one's trying to protect some idea they've harbored," says Ahonen. "It's not, 'This idea is mine.' It's a bunch of people trying to create something alive together.
Kautz says this attitude unifies both the company and the production: "If you have the courage to let other people in on the entire storytelling process, then everybody becomes accountable. It's not a story told by individuals. It's a collective, and everybody's accountable to the story. It becomes their play. And that's fun."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Russ Rowland