A mildly rowdy crowd is bundled against a chilly night, iced drinks in hand; slightly janky floors creak under old recycled theater seats and a few folding chairs. Before the curtain rises, audience members call to each other around the house, as pretty much everyone knows each other. As for the live accompaniment, there's a bottle of Corona on top of the organ. By act two, it's two bottles.
Goofy productions in the Engine House Theater have long been a tradition in Madrid. The barn-like building, which served as the train engine repair shop during the town's era as a bustling mining community, was later converted into a performance space and has hosted various plays and events for decades. For about 25 years, summer melodramas went down under the purview of thespians Cliff and Ede Cato, former owners of the Mine Shaft Tavern and the Old Coal Mine Museum, and this writer had a couple turns on that stage in 2006. But once the Catos sold the property in 2007, the theater went mostly quiet. Occasional events went up, including poetry readings, fundraisers and the He-She Bang, a locals' delight drag and variety show (which sees its 27th iteration this November), but nothing with the regularity of the Madrid Melodrama's reign.
In 2014, however, musician Joe West staged his first Theater of Death there, and each year since has presented a weird-ass Halloween-season production. West's original folky-Americanaey-country-ish music, rooted firmly in storytelling, has always painted crisp pictures of the local lifestyle—West's ancestors settled ranchland in the San Marcos area three generations ago and the family has been here ever since—so it's not surprising that he also has a penchant for actual theatrical productions.
West says the concept of the Theater of Death is inspired by the historic Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, which operated from 1897 until 1962. That badass institution crafted counterculture creations of horror and gore, psychological drama, live sex acts and generally shocking shit. Founder Oscar Metenier, who was often shut down by police censors, judged the success of a production by how many audience members fainted during the show, and employed a staff doctor.
Admittedly, a Metenier West is not. The Madrid productions are perhaps unpolished and undeniably silly. As for being shocking, it's hard to produce anything shocking at this point (particularly in Madrid). No one was even close to fainting, though a few drinks did get spilled.
Each year has a broad theme: In 2016 it was Champagne, 2017 was marijuana, and this year it's aliens. They're specific enough that threads can easily be found, but broad enough that you can kind of do anything and find a way to make it link back. Two shorts this year are penned by West himself, a third (the most brief, with no spoken words) is by Timothy Willis, and the fourth is by Theodore Sturgeon, adapted to stage by West. So … it's kind of the Joe West Show.
Well, let's back up. It would be the Joe West Show were it not for a delightful cast, not to mention a crew that is surprisingly large. The sets are a riot; they're not necessarily large or intricate, but an articulated plywood cow, projected videos, puppets, flashing lights and various things flying about on strings definitely make for an engaging visual experience. It's clear that the painters and carpenters had a lot of fun putting this thing together—it's a real pleasure to watch unfold.
West casts his cohorts and friends, as well as folks he plucks from theatrical productions in Santa Fe. This year's show includes a lot of familiar faces, and not just from the Shaft (though there's definitely plenty of that; West tells SFR that "a lot of times, [the cast] was just whoever was hanging around the bar").
Madrid musician Caiti Lord, who's recently begun playing tunes in Santa Fe (which I'm very happy about—I still think about her ukulele rendition of Missy Elliott's "Work It" from a few years ago), has a few truly diabolical turns. We also see the silly side of Todd Anderson (from the Adobe Rose's Building the Wall and Ironweed's The Crucible), as well as that of Andrew Wice, local author and creator of the Madrid Oral History Tour app. Stephen Rommel, a TOD veteran and who's lent his talents to shows in Santa Fe, also makes appearances. Timbo Arnold of local bluesy outfit Cactus Slim and the Goatheads (one of my favorite band names ever) lends his guitar chops to the live music side of things.
As you're watching the action unfold, if you find yourself muttering, "Hey, isn't that that guy …?" you're probably right. I would say that this is by locals, for locals, but the second part isn't true. It's fun for everyone.
With vignette titles like "Alien Baby" and "Death by Crystal Egg," and scripts that just go in circles (many of the dialogues kind of sounded like the transcribed babblings of a child playing in the bathtub), this is definitely a relaxed evening of ridiculousness. When a character murmurs onstage, "If only they knew what really happened …" the audience immediately yells, "Tell us!" When a cycloptic puppet's mouth moves with no sound, West calls from the organ, "Turn on the baby's mic!"
But underlying the inebriated fun is legitimate talent. If this show was put on by a bunch of stereotypical burnouts, it would have fallen apart. The aforementioned set pieces, designer Meg Lenzer's really quite awesome costumes (I want to know how they keep the nurses' sneakers so white), zany lighting and more couldn't be controlled by slackers. The vibe is laid-back and the feel decidedly real—because the less the actors and crew dick around, all the more the audience can just enjoy.
But if you want to enjoy, you should commit ASAP. Even I didn't get to a single Theater of Death before this year due to the speed at which it always sells out, so don't waste any time. And, word to the wise: The theater's attached to the bar, so just open a tab.