‘Pie Show’ plumbs primal fears of parenthood

Birth of a nightmare: Clay McLeod Chapman and Hanna Cheek welcome a new arrival into the world, when “Labor Pains” premieres on Sept. 24. Photo by KL Thomas.

Birth of a nightmare: Clay McLeod Chapman and Hanna Cheek welcome a new arrival into the world, when “Labor Pains” premieres on Sept. 24. Photo by KL Thomas.

BY CHARLES BATTERSBY | Theater calculated to terrify is everywhere during the month that culminates with Halloween — but “The Pumpkin Pie Show” is off to an early start, as of September 24.

This is the 18th annual presentation of psychologically complex, often shocking and occasionally gruesome monologues, which this year will tackle the horrors of parenthood. We spoke with writer/performer Clay McLeod Chapman and actress Hanna Cheek to talk about “The Pumpkin Pie Show: Labor Pains.”

The show has been a mainstay of East Village theater for so long that even its creators are surprised. “The first ‘Pumpkin Pie Show’ in New York was at the first New York International Fringe Festival,” says Chapman. “We were here when that began almost twenty years ago. It had its root in wanting to put on a show with my actor friends, wanting to do it without a lot of money, and therefore not a lot of production elements — no costumes, no set, nothing beyond the story strapped to our backs.”

Cheek points out that the show still uses that barebones aesthetic today. “We take the fourth wall, and push it back behind the last row of the theater,” she notes. “We’re speaking directly to the audience, inviting them to be the other person in the scene or story that we are telling. That matches with the lack of props, the lack of costumes. Everyone’s imagination in the room is coming together and becomes communal. That’s what fills out the details.”

Each monologue contains a blend of horror and comedy. This year, the roles played by Cheek include a woman who cuckolded her husband with Sasquatch, as well as darker roles, like a predator who kidnaps children.

“As a performer I love to find that kernel of humanity in the villain, and Clay, as a writer, loves to embellish that kernel,” she said. “At least once a year I get to play some fantastic, dubious characters and find the heart in them, and that’s why I keep coming back.”

“Hanna is a dubious character in and of herself,” jokes Chapman. “Every writer is trying to find the best actors that they can work with. I lucked out early on and found Hanna, and have exploited her talents for decades.”

Blending humor with horror is difficult to pull off — but as Cheek explains, “That’s part of the fun for me as a performer. That volley between horror and comedy, they each allow the other one to land more fully. The more we make you laugh, the more comfortable you feel in our hands — and then we can tighten the fist around you and you’re trapped, and that’s horrifying. Then we release you again with laughter, and the laughter becomes a deeper laugh — and the horror becomes that much more terrifying.”

 “The Pumpkin Pie Show” shines a light on the darkness within. Photo by Blair Anthoney Frowner.

“The Pumpkin Pie Show” shines a light on the darkness within. Photo by Blair Anthoney Frowner.

Many of Chapman’s stories end with an ironic twist, which longtime audience members have come to expect from his writing. “The twist exists in the character from the very first word,” he explains. “I’m a ‘Twilight Zone’ baby. There’s no denying it. That is where my pop culture heritage started. The challenge will always be to make the twist feel organic and real.”

People who missed previous installments of the show will be able to hear them as podcasts on Fangoria in the near future. Chapman and Cheek are the sole performers confirmed so far, but Chapman hints about reuniting with some of the previous cast members. “The back catalog is pretty expansive, so we’re hoping to have some special guests come back and reprise their pieces from yonder, way back when.”

Cheek says her favorite old story from previous shows is one called “Overbite.”

“It’s from a show called ‘Big Top,’ where all of the stories were from circus performers. She’s one of my favorites. She’s the Iron Jaw at the circus and she spins from her teeth and her story of twisted revenge.”

“It’s tragedy!” chimes in Chapman, and the two giggle, sharing a private joke from their decades of collaboration and friendship. 

Horror fans will also be interested in the recently released film “The Boy,” which Chapman wrote the screenplay for, along with Craig Macneill. “The Boy” is based on a chapter from one of Chapman’s “Miss Corpus” novel, and tells the story of a nine-year-old who is heading down the road to becoming a sociopath. It is a slow burn, with many small reveals leading up to a violent conclusion.

“We made an active choice at the beginning of the process to deconstruct the slasher movie,” Chapman says of the film. “In a way, it’s like a sheep in wolves’ clothing. If you come in expecting ‘Friday the 13th,’ you will be disappointed. But if you expect to see something a little new, a little different, a character portrait of a sociopath — that, to me, is a little bit off the beaten path and exciting.”

The prolific Chapman also has a graphic novel coming out this October on Michael Bay’s new comic book line, 451 Media Group. It is called “Self Storage,” and Chapman describes it as “A lovely little Zom-Rom-Com about what it would be like to stumble upon a zombie in a self-storage unit.” Think of it as “The Walking Dead” meets “Storage Wars,” he says.

Hanna Cheek will jump right from “The Pumpkin Pie Show” into another performance in “The Honeycomb Trilogy,” beginning on Oct. 13th. In the project, which she describes as “a sci-fi film on stage,” Cheek plays Ronnie, the grizzled, war-weary leader of a community in the wake of an alien invasion. We’ll have more coverage of “The Honeycomb Trilogy” in the weeks ahead.

“The Pumpkin Pie Show: Labor Pains” runs Thurs.–Sat. at 8 p.m., from Sept. 24–Oct. 10 at UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place, btw. First Ave. Ave. A). Purchase tickets ($18, $15 for students) in advance, at horsetrade.info. Artist info at claymcleodchapman.com.

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