Late in the extraordinarily entertaining, two-plus hour laugh fest Shining in Misery – the just-opened Capital City Theatre entry in the World Premiere Wisconsin festival – its evil genius makes clear just how dire things are for the poor souls trying to escape. “My best ghouls are just over there,” he crows with glee.
We can only see one such ghoul, but no matter. When reading Stephen King – or, in the case of Shining in Misery, watching a parody of Stephen King – the underland we’re afraid to see is always teeming with vampires and ghosts, demonic clowns and monstrous pets, the beasts we fear we are and the terrors that keep us awake.
“There’s more of them,” the devilish Randall Flagg says of his ghouls. “I can’t bring them over here because of limits of actors and costuming but trust me when I say, they’re there.”
And that’s par for the course – not just in this parody but in nearly every American musical, which burst into song, defy gravity, and reach for the stars because there’s invariably more in the world that one can ever capture through life’s daily dialogue of busy nothings.
Yes: most of the terrific actors in the Capital City ensemble play multiple roles. And yes: Karen Brown-Larimore’s evocative costuming makes each of them come alive.
But as the demonic Pennywise the Clown tells us in an early number, there’s always at least one hundred spirits lurking in the darkness at the edge of the King universe. No matter how many actors there are or how much we think we see, there’s always more, crowding in the wings and waiting to appear on stage.
Shining in Misery conjures it all.
Aided and abetted by Mark Eugene-Garcia’s lyrics, Andrew Abrams’ expansive and sophisticated score channels musicals galore, in a gleeful pastiche that simultaneously tilts toward the operatic, while also suggesting a Wagnerian orgy of folklore and myth, replete with horror-laden leitmotifs and ghoulish grace notes.
For all the mayhem and murder, the dominant note at the performance I attended was laughter; I’ve never – and I mean never – heard more of it while watching a show on the Playhouse stage. Gloriously campy and loaded with sight gags, Shining in Misery had the audience in stitches, yours truly very much included.
Deconstructing the Family Romance
Dare I say that for all the laughter and good times, Shining in Misery reminded me of the first World Premiere Wisconsin show, the stellar, still-running Milwaukee Rep production of Lloyd Suh’s The Heart Sellers? Stay with me, dear reader, and let me explain.
Shining in Misery book writer Colleen Duvall – a self-professed King freak sporting a Stephen King Rules tee shirt when I spoke with her before the opening weekend’s Sunday matinee – leans especially hard in this script on the first half of King’s career, before his swerve toward some of his more outward looking, historically-oriented novels like Bag of Bones and 11/22/63.
This is the younger King – himself then raising a family – who focused more on psychology than politics, deconstructing the family romance as ruthlessly as Edward Albee did in another recently staged Wisconsin show: Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s landmark production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Shining in Misery may begin with idyllic images of the Torrance family getaway to a Colorado resort.
But it also continually drives home how emotionally unfulfilling and sexually unsatisfying the Torrance marriage is. As King often does, it exposes the violence that parents inflict on their children. And it dissects the alternately addictive and neurotic behavior of adults who vainly try to bury their disappointment in work and substance abuse.
The uncontainable, seemingly boundless energy coursing through Shining in Misery isn’t just about the inevitable disconnect between what musicals want to say and the inherent limitations of the form through which it must be said.
It’s also about the claustrophobia at the heart of the nuclear family seeking the forever-receding mirage of a mythical American Dream – and the especially high price paid by the women and children whom that illusory dream leaves behind. Is there any wonder that King’s The Shining and this musical feature an overheating boiler, buried in the basement and waiting to blow?
Like Wendy and Danny Torrance in Shining in Misery, the two lonely women in The Heart Sellers are caught in a trap: confined to a kitchen on the quintessentially American holiday of Thanksgiving.
Like Wendy, they’ve been abandoned by their workaholic husbands. Like Wendy, they’re afraid of the foreign land they inhabit, where every chance encounter can turn monstrous. Like Wendy, they indulge fantasies of escape into a world where they’re not so alone. Like Wendy, they know deep down that they can never go home again.
All of which Suh plays for laughs; especially in the early going, The Heart Sellers can resemble a classic sitcom from the decade (the 1970s) in which it’s set – and in which The Shining was written. If The Heart Sellers nevertheless occasionally tilts toward horror – and if Shining in Misery can sometimes resemble a sitcom – it’s because the worlds they inhabit share more than one might imagine.
As I noted in the first piece I wrote as WPW’s in-house essayist, a festival like World Premiere Wisconsin “allows seemingly unrelated plays to enter into conversation with each other. And as with any good dialogue, every participant becomes more nuanced as a result, while also becoming more appreciative of all they share with people and places with which they’ve rarely interacted.”
To be sure, I don’t want to make more of the parallels between The Heart Sellers and Shining in Misery than is actually there. But I also don’t want to ignore such similarities, either.
Neither should you. Both of these fine shows are still running. See them both – being sure to first sign up for the WPW digital passport at visit https://
See you in the theater!
Shining in Misery runs through Sunday at the Playhouse in the Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison. For more information about the show and tickets, go to https://capitalcitytheatre.
The Heart Sellers continues through March 19 at Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. For tickets, go to https://www.milwaukeerep.com/shows/show/the-heart-sellers/