If you want to move beyond schlock and shock into an elevated horror experience this October, look no further than House of the Exquisite Corpse—A Haunted Puppet Anthology at Chopin Theater in Wicker Park. Created by the brilliant minds at Rough House Theater, this show is a Frankenstein of seven rooms and body parts stitched together, combining the horrors of home (after COVID we can all agree it can feel like a prison) with the frailties of corporeal existence. It is an ambitious and surreal leap into puppet horror. The show was conceived by Mike Oleon and featuring work by Oleon, Time Brickey, Felix Mayes, Grace Needlman, Will Bishop, Claire Saxe, Kevin Michael Wesson, K.T. Shivak, Corey Smith, and Jaerin Son.
House of the Exquisite CorpseThrough 11/5: Thu-Sat (rolling entry beginning at 7 PM; amount of entry slots varies), Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, roughhousetheater.com, $15-$45
To understand the genesis of this project is to get a fuller view of the monstrosity it results in. The seven rooms (or boxes) are a peep show, where the audience is the voyeur of an interior world, with puppeteers, physical theater artists, and designers (dozens of collaborators in all) combining forces to make a haunted house that defies expectations.
And it does defy them. I arrived expecting jump scares from puppets (rather than the usual actors dressed as zombies), and I was pleased instead to be steered along a dark path, through the woods (metaphorically) to a house full of pain and strife. Emily Chervony (production manager and puppeteer) explained at the opening night after-party how the design of the boxes originally evolved to give the audience and the performers some distance during COVID. It works as a concept of horror too, as you are very aware of being a spectator—and feeling creepy about it—yet not entirely removed from the scene.
Overconsumption, mysteries, the pressures of time and aging, and even a toilet vampire from the prehistoric depths of Lake Michigan all astounded our group as we rotated around the ominous and shambly set (design by Oleon and Warren Wernick, with scenic decoration by Sion Silva). These stories all converged around the theme of rooms in a house/body parts—the dining room/stomach, the pipes/intestinal tract, etc. Still, each vision was distinct and Frankensteined to the others by a haunting soundscape (by Joey Meland). Each room also offered headsets to the audience members which provided music, sound effects, stories, dialogue, and layered atmospherics, making the experience intensely immersive. The puppets themselves come in many forms, from shadow puppets to marionettes and with many unique varieties in between.
Some rooms told a direct story, while others were more conceptual and left horrific conclusions up to the interpreter. One of my favorites, “Along the Twisty Road III” (created by Bishop and Needlman—featuring artist Chio Cabrera) tells the tale of the dangers of meeting a significant other’s family members, with the added twist of being queer and othered, and sets the scene on an extra-creepy country road—all done with voice-over acting and a clever blend of shadow projections, overlaid with a kaleidoscope of sounds and color.