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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Original Fiction: THE PERFORMANCE by E.F. SCHRAEDER

                                                                     The Review

-Alan Chambers, Entertainment Editor

“The show’s director began the evening when he explained, in a rambling introduction that bordered on incoherent, that his production of Sex Monster intends to shed light on provincial notions of intimacy and sex while clarifying the nature of desire, obsession, and pleasure.  I suggest that this juvenile and mania-inducing show would be better if cooled.  Now on its third production, I would have imagined the spectacle had, as it were, ironed out its kinks.  Instead, the players of Sex Monster, insist that we witness and absorb them.

 “The audience may likely be transfixed by the increasingly explicit sequence of vignettes displayed in the four actor ensemble that delivered Sex Monster to Rowback Central Theater.  Indeed, the raw sexuality of the show will transfix the average immature viewer.  Reports of raucous reactions to the self-proclaimed ‘triumph of human expression’ have filtered to me from various editorial contacts and reviews across the state.  I’m afraid the attempt at revival of the drug-laden nineteen sixties ‘happenings’ is passé, at best, and fails at worst.  For the Director’s sake, I officially announce that living theater is dead.

“I do not hold the new acting troupe’s commitment to raising eyebrows in question.  Although I felt more trapped than entranced during the event, I admit I didn’t make it to the concluding act of the inaugural performance.  As a result of the plotless and pointless production, let us say in the spirit of the show, I felt the need for a premature evacuation.

“Having seen much of the spectacle, however, I am unsurprised that Sex Monster left prior audiences “mesmerized” and “enraptured” as the playbill notes. Though I have contacted fellow editors to discuss the play, none has returned my inquiry.  I only assume their positive comments were taken out of context. Had I been mesmerized, perhaps I could have endured the suffering involved in the two hour fetish-fest as brutal and virtually un-viewable as a foray into a nudist renaissance festival.

“I fear this is the sort of review that titillates and entices, hinting that viewers ready for a shock attend the final production.  That is hardly my intent.  Spare yourselves the money and time.  If you want to indulge in an evening of pleasure, stay home, make wild love to your significant other, and by all means, avoid the tripe.”

                                                                     ***
 
                                                            The Audience

“I can’t believe you dragged me into this.” Joelle’s voice possessed a strain in its quiet anger.  She hissed the last word, dragging out the “this” until it practically had two syllables while she glared around the darkened theater. 

“Shh,” Karla seethed.  She whacked Joelle on the knee, hard.  Karla sat between them, and she shot Lisa a frustrated glance, rolling her eyes.

Lisa giggled. “You two are ridiculous.” She glanced between them. “Like an old married couple.”

“They’re about to start,” Karla nudged Lisa.  “Be quiet.  Both of you.”

The three of them blinked nervously into the dark theater.  The rest of the audience was quiet. Lisa sucked back her lips and offered an apologetic face.  She mouthed the word “sorry” to her friends.

Crowds packed the Rowback Theater. After the opening night buzz and scathing review, lambasting it for graphic nudity, sexually explicitness, and pointless plotting.  Online, reports of strange, crowded after parties and “intense” reactions to the show from other communities were viral.  Added to the review describing gratuitous sex, and the crowds on its second and final showing at Rowback were unsurprising.

The lights continued to dim in the seating area as the stage lights grew white hot.  Then the lights pressed in a controlled, single spotlight focused on an empty lounger chair.

“Oh brother,” Joelle whispered.   She pulled her leg away in anticipation of the slap that was coming. 

***

                                      Director Horace Feldman, on the making of the play

Feldman shuffled down the aisle, his feet dragging on the painted floors.  A few members of the audience squinted and glanced away as he passed, as if bothered by a sour smell.  The Director walked slowly, his gangly frame moving mechanically, as if every step toward the spotlight were forced.  He wore a tailored gray jacket over a black T-shirt and snug pair of denim jeans, and his skin assumed a luminescent, grayish quality as he entered the light.  A dollop of brown, spiked hair topped his head.  Whoever applied his make-up rendered him looking fierce and strange.

Feldman was six feet tall, lean, and disheveled.  A scruffy, speckled beard unevenly dotted his chin in fuzzy spurts, and his dark, hungry eyes scoured the crowd. His face had a sallow but intense quality, an edge that made him equal parts appealing and frightening.  The dark circles beneath his eyes capped off his face with a look of utter exhaustion befitting his role as the fatigued, creative force behind a breakout new show.

Feldman’s gravelly voice erupted into the quiet theater as he stepped onto the stage.  The reluctant fundraiser, like most creative directors, he stood to address the audience and spoke quickly about their future projects before introducing the evening’s performance.

“Sex Monster is a play. The words of the thing unlock. Production, drama, show. It pushes limits, defies analysis. Sex Monster shows everything. A piece.” Feldman smiled, his dark lips parted to expose an uneven row of yellowing teeth.

“The performance functions also as a frolic or tease.  In the broadest sense, play means to act and perform.  And who among us has not had to reckon with performance anxiety?”  Feldman paused, expecting laughter, which slowly trickled from the edges of the audience into a low rumble.

“The ordered chaos of desire awaits you.”  Feldman sucked in his cheeks, and the distinctive pose made him look frightening, his deep set eyes almost hollowed in the contorted expression.  He tugged a cigarette and lighter from the inside pocket of his gray blazer and lit it slowly, a line of smoke circling around his face.  The trail of smoke wafted through the room, probably clove, possibly laced, but definitely not just tobacco. 

The Director proffered a closed-lip smile and announced, “Smoking indoors is the least worrisome taboo you’ll confront tonight.”  Feldman took a long pull from the cigarette and exhaled slowly.  Then he clapped his hands together boldly and announced, “Whatever escape you expect from entertainment, you will find it within Sex Monster, as will we all.

Feldman abruptly leapt from the stage, his long arms flapping at his sides as he strode to the back of the theater.  Smoke trailed behind him, the pungent scent hovering thickly in the air.  He fumbled and knocked over a few folding chairs in the back of the room, and his unusual cackling laughter filled the auditorium.

Hesitant and nervous applause followed Feldman’s abrupt exit.  His laughter continued to ripple in unsteady bursts as the applause slowed.  A few audience members glanced backward, the uneasy crowd shuffled programs and tried to settle itself for the spectacle.  The orange glow of Feldman’s cigarette butt flickered in the dark. 

The lights dimmed further, plunging the audience into a throbbing darkness the likes of which were more frequently known within the confines of an oblong box or a well-defined fantasy.

                                                                          ***

                                                                      Showtime

 A young, fair skinned woman with white blonde hair emerged from the left wing.  The actress wore a loose, gold hued robe, open enough to reveal that nothing lay beneath it but her smooth flesh.  Fine white powder sparkled on her skin.  She didn’t deliver a single line for three full minutes.  She simply walked to the lounger, slipped her hand between the folds of the robes, and looked around the room.  Finally she lowered herself onto the lounger.

Karla gaped at her.

No one drew breath in the audience.  By the time the woman sat, a collective sigh of relief erupted. 

Karla glanced to the seats around her.  Had they all worried she’d remove the robe so quickly?  Gratuitous nudity was one thing, but no one expected to start there.  No matter where the troupe came from, they were visiting a community theater, for God’s sake.  How nasty could it get?

Gape mouthed, Karla stared at the actress.  A longing seared in her chest and tears swelled in her eyes before she could stop them.  She had touched that flesh, tasted it.  Now she was reduced to observing it, on display, amidst a room full of strangers.  Why’d she insist on coming? 

Karla knew, fully, at that moment that she did not want to watch this play, or see her ex, ever again.  The review described Sex Monster  “a two hour fetish-fest.”  Karla hung on the phrase “two hour.”  Karla allowed her eyelids to droop heavily, wondering if she could just sleep through the ordeal.  A blackout would be preferable.  I can’t watch this . . .

Karla breathed slowly and noted the sweaty, dank odor of the theater, the damp and cool air.  How could anyone stand to be naked on that stage?  Dora. She rolled over the name in her mind until she almost tasted the memories.  She fingered the name familiarly as she discovered her ‘Dora’ on the program.

The theater went cold.  Karla imagined Dora’s perfect breasts beneath the robe, the hard nipples she could not touch.  Flanked by her friends, Karla wished she could simply vanish.  She swallowed then averted her eyes, inviting an altered state of consciousness to take over.  Anything between meditation and sleep would be a welcome diversion to her ex’s center stage display.  She noticed a faint smog emerging from center stage, steaming up the stage like a sauna.  Her eyes closed.  How strange . . . her lids sank shut.

Beside Karla, Lisa casually pointed her phone at the stage, recording.  No one noticed.  Instead of watching the actress, she held her eyes on the screen, as if separating herself by one degree rendered the voyeuristic indulgence more acceptable.  She determined to watch whatever happened.

Joelle didn’t know where to look.  She glanced nervously at the stranger beside her.  From the way he squirmed in his seat, Joelle assumed he was more than a little turned on by the charge of pheromones in the atmosphere.  She felt a stab of curiosity play in her as she wondered how far the play would go.  How far any of them would.

This is how bisexuality starts.  Anonymously, Joelle thought.  She smiled at the man next to her. Her friends beside her.  Would they even notice? 

Joelle felt a surge of warmth between her legs as she imagined this stranger getting turned on.  The thought of it was so arousing it almost didn’t matter if it were true or false.  Her thoughts dimmed.  Everything in the instant became a single focused impulse to gratify, an itch to scratch, a hunger to feed.  She bit down on her lower lip trying to induce enough pain to snap out of it.  She remembered reading somewhere that the brain was the body’s first and foremost erogenous zone.  That sure seemed true.

Joelle’s eyes went blank, unfocused as she indulged in a brief fantasy about him.  Her own imagination demanded more attention than the woman on stage, who was still voiceless.  She casually set her hand beneath the program on her lap and pressed.

The man beside Joelle glanced from the blonde bombshell on stage openly fondling herself back to her.  He could tell she was into him. She was his age, good looking.  Did it matter? A wave of confidence stronger than Viagra surged in him.  Want.  How good that felt after such a dry spell.

On stage the woman reposed, her legs spread broadly on the lounger.  No underwear.  Really.  And a gorgeous nest of kinky blonde hair. 

Feldman’s cigarette smoke still clung to the air, which had grown warmer and thicker since the production began. The intensity of the fumes peaked, strongly as if they’d switched to a fog machine.  Perhaps they had.

Karla blinked, trying not to look, but unable to sustain resistance.  Almost mindlessly, Dora focused on herself.  Was it even a performance?  The familiar squint of Dora’s eyes and nudge of her hips to the side forced Karla, again, to look away.  She didn’t know how much time had passed and wondered if Chambers, the editor, made it this far.  The smell of sex lingered in the air.  Probably not. 

A second actor appeared on stage, a tall lanky man with hollow gray eyes and black hair.  “Nice when cuffs and collar match,” he said.  He sat down and watched Dora intently.  He positioned himself across the stage, but half facing the audience, creating a visual triangle that connected them to the happening on stage.

Dora remained unchanged.  She probed herself, exploratory fingers dancing expertly. 

A third actor emerged, loud footsteps erupted across the stage.  He donned a fitted, tan suit and a tie with a muted, flecked pattern.  A camel colored rain jacket flung over his shoulder and a brief case swung in his hand.  He stormed into the raunchy sex scene, apparently designed to mimic the presence of authority. “What’s going on?” he insisted.  “You just going to sit here and wipe your prick until she gets off?”  Clearly he had an opinion about how things were supposed to go.  He looked fiercely toward the audience, pointing his fury at them.

Karla was lost in sleep. The spectacle of her ex performing sex acts was wholly unacceptable.  Can’t watch

Lisa turned off her phone and fiddled with the program.  When the hell was intermission?  Karla, who’d insisted they attend, was audibly snoring, her head lolling back onto the padded, red velvet seat cushion.  Lisa looked over her unconscious friend, who’d obviously given up on the play, toward Joelle.  Joelle didn’t seem to know where to look.

The audience bristled.  No one breathed. 

“Entertain me,” The familiar director’s voice surged over the loudspeaker.  “Amuse, interest, distract, tickle.  Which is it?” he laughed.  More, a cackle.

The lights came up.  Intermission. 

Holy hell, how was anyone going to sit through a second act? Lisa thought.

Feldman’s voice ripped through the strained audience tension.  “Are you avoiding?  Wanting more?  Or wanting an escape?”  He clumsily walked to the stage again.  Now he seemed drunk. 

Perhaps something was very wrong with him . . . 

Feldman wobbled toward the stage, “You’re all a part of the second act, which starts immediately,” Feldman announced.

Lisa tapped Karla until she startled awake, a line of thick drool pooled at the edge of her lips.

Confusion gripped the audience as the house lights flashed on, piercing the darkness with a scorching brightness.  “Now,” Feldman screamed.  Thick smoke charged the atmosphere.

The fantasy ended abruptly.  The audience members looked anxiously at each other and toward the cast members on stage.  The actors stood in a line, smiling at the audience.  The audience members, forced to reckon with their own states of arousal, groaned and grumbled.  A handful of chuckles erupted, followed by several coughing fits from the back.  The crowd gasped, almost collectively, as if caught in the act.

Men covered their laps, looking around nervously.  A handful of people stood up from the edges of the audience and ambled around the room.  The looked as unkempt as the players.  They wiped their mouths carefully, though visible traces and crusts of something remained visible on their lips.  They licked their lips, eyeing the people around them. 

Lisa frowned.  The scene was wholly unpalatable.  Were they planted there? Part of the show?    

“You’re the intermission,” Feldman laughed.  “Snacks are on you,” he yelled.  “Abandon your fears, your hesitancy, and join the frolic,” he whispered.  The cast on stage erupted in hideous laughter. 

Dora dropped out of her robe and charged toward Karla, her small pale breasts bouncing as she ran.  Karla gasped, and unconvincingly resisted as Dora’s hands caressed her face. 

The unexpected turn fueled a seizing discomfort, and at once the audience murmured in disbelief.  Cast and crew rumbled into the crowd, but the theater was too crowded to allow immediate escape.

Voices erupted through the chaos.  “What’s happening?”

The camel-coated actor plunged into the audience.  He grabbed a viewer and kissed him, hard, thrusting a tongue into a reluctant mouth. 

“What do you think you’re doing?” the resistant man asked.  “I’m with her,” he reached to his right, but his date for the evening was actively accosting the man beside her.  He fumbled over his chair and toppled back into his seat.  The seat gave a strained creak beneath his sudden weight. 

A flurry of squeals, hushed voices, and loud giggles rippled through the tense audience. 

“Yes, release yourself.  Ours is an STD you’ve never imagined,” Feldman wiped a sleeve across his gray mouth.  A hideous smile plastered on his strange face.  “Entertain me!”  Feldman clasped his hands together, nodding to the actors like a king to his court.

The thick crowd rose from their seats and moved as a single unit, in shock, masses heading toward the exit, but they couldn’t escape.  A pair of red-coated doormen bolted the theater and the crowd turned inward, yelling about their freedoms. 

Shouts of “You can’t hold us” and “We’ve rights, you know!” stung above the orgiastic groans of pleasure that swelled from the mass of people nearest the stage.

“Give in to it,” Feldman yowled.  “Desire consumes us,” his ragged voice called.  He sucked back on another cigarette and twirled himself around clumsily, puffing circles of smoke into the air.

Karla accepted Dora’s strange kiss, those ice cold lips. 

Dora nipped Karla’s ear, too hard.  A trickle of warm liquid filled her ear and flowed from Dora’s mouth.  Karla pulled away for a moment, but the seduction overtook her, and she swooned into Dora’s embrace.  Karla’s head drooped onto Dora’s waiting shoulder and Dora plunged into the dribbling blood from Karla’s ear.

Lisa backed toward the stage unconsciously, away from the sight of her friend being devoured by Dora’s lust.  She looked to Joelle and screamed.

Joelle clamped her mouth to the hands of the stranger beside her, lips tugging skin, teasing teeth.  Blood erupted from the stranger’s fingers, and he pressed his erection at Joelle’s side while she gnawed on him mindlessly.  He moaned in pleasure, eyes lolling back.

“Stop it!” Lisa yelled.  No one listened. 

“What kind of show is this?” someone howled.  “Are they all actors?”

Lisa turned toward the voice.  It’s the lone voice of sanity in this room, she thought.  Where is it?  This is an unthinkable mess.  She looked around, shreds of clothes hung over seat backs, clusters of people huddled in embraces, pawing wildly at each other.  And everyone seemed to mouth and munch on everything in sight. Disgust churned in her stomach.  The warm, sickly smell of sweaty bodies surrounded her.  Everywhere she looked she saw people in various states of undress and madness, rubbing and groping each other in an unrestrained frenzy. What the hell?

Lisa wondered how many people, if any, managed to leave before the door was bolted.  She wished she’d been one of them.  She called to Karla and Joelle, but they were invisible beneath a hoard of actors and audience members.  What kind of infection were they spreading? 

Escape was the only thought pressing Lisa’s mind.  Escape.  Escape.

Director Feldman heaved himself back upon the stage, passing out cigarettes to his actors and the few crew members who weren’t flailing in the audience.  The spotlights still blazing, their jerky movements were shadowed against the wall as they passed the lighter, heads bent to flame.  Smoke pumped from behind stage, casting a thick cloud into the audience.

A thick waft of fog hit Lisa’s nostrils and she fell, singularly limp, into the chair beneath her.  Lisa’s eyes dimmed as one of the cast bent over her, squeezing her temples with his thick fingers. His unpleasant yellow teeth opened in a broad grin…

Whatever happened in the second act was mesmerizing, entrancing.  No one quite remembered, but the crowd cheered and applauded as the curtain dropped.  Some stood, slack jawed, roaring for more.
Director Feldman stood in the back of the theater, clasping hands and reveling in his triumph as guests praised the production before they left, bleary eyed and enraptured with the event.  Feldman’s sinister glare lingered on Lisa for a moment, but she ignored him.

“Well, that was hot,” Joelle concluded.  She shot a smile toward the strange man beside her.

“Can you believe I dated her?” Karla asked, fingering a sore spot on her ear.  Felt tender, raw.  She sighed heavily, then folded the program neatly in half and tucked it into her back pocket purposefully, like she intended to put it away along with her stray memories of Dora.

“I have such a headache, like you wouldn’t believe,” Lisa said.  She rubbed her temples gingerly, frowning as she noticed the intense body odor still hovering in the air. 

“You’re not in the mood after all that?” Karla chuckled. 

Joelle’s stomach growled loudly.  “I’m in the mood for something,” she said.  “I’m ready for a bite.  How about you?”  Joelle smiled at her friends, a hungry look settling onto her expression as she ran her tongue over her teeth. Lisa noticed, just for a moment, how gray the theater lighting made her friends look.


E. F. Schraeder is a member of the New England Horror Writers whose creative work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Big Pulp's The Kennedy Curse, Carnival of the Damned, Flashes in the Dark, Dark Gothic Magazine Resurrected, Corvus Magazine, Five Poetry, and elsewhere.  Her poetry chapbook The Hunger Tree is available from Finishing Line Press. She is currently working on a novella.








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