Popped: Cherry Red, D.C.’s Most Debaucherous Theater Troupe, Hangs It Up
One evening in June 2000, in the black-box theater in the recesses of the now-shuttered Metro Café on 14th Street NW, a stuffed cat drenched in fake blood soared over the audience—just as it did every other night during the monthlong run of Cherry Red Productions’ Zombie Attack! But at this particular performance, the sanguinary plush toy, dripping crimson rivulets on the patrons, missed its target.
Kate Debelack, the actress responsible for chucking the kitty, usually managed to hit the lighting booth. But a “punk girl with a shaved head” leaped up from her seat, snagged the flying cat, and like a baseball fan rejecting a home run by the visiting team, tossed it back onstage.
Then there was the time a prostitute, trolling for business on K Street NW at 4 one winter morning, crossed paths with Stage Manager Jason A. Milner and yelled out, “Hey, you’re the Cherry Red guy!” Perhaps, as Cherry Red Artistic Director Ian Allen says, “Hookers have artistic souls.”
Even after 16 years of staging enough sex, violence, and general debauchery to make Pier Paolo Pasolini seem tame by comparison, Allen insists that the company, which is shutting down at the end of this month, was always populated with “serious theater people.” And a trip through Cherry Red’s archives reveals an undercurrent of collaborators and inspiration from the mainstream theater world: Playwrights such as Wendy MacLeod and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (a former Washington City Paper contributor) provided scripts. Malcolm, Edward Albee’s 1966 mediation on youthful promiscuity, found the stage it needed when Cherry Red mounted it in 2004. Romeo & Juliatric blended the company’s trademark sensationalism with Shakespearean dialogue in relocating the star-crossed couple from Verona to a nursing home.
Just about everyone who performs on a public stage—actors, athletes, politicians—is comfortable with some level of exhibitionism. The theater geeks of Cherry Red just took it all the way, and the D.C. theater scene was the better for it.
Still, it’s hard not to fixate on the wackier anecdotes from Cherry Red’s history. The opening night of its 1996 debut, The Queens Chef, was nearly canceled when the police showed up to a rehearsal at a cast member’s apartment after a neighbor called to report hearing someone scream, “I’m gonna kill you, bitch!” (It was just a line in the play, about an aspiring serial killer.) The cops arrived with guns drawn. The situation was resolved, but not before an accidental standoff between the responding officer and Shane Mason, the lead actor, who was wielding a prop gun.
Cherry Red had another run-in with law enforcement when Emily Rems, a stage manager, was pulled over and asked to open the trunk of her car. It was full of props—bloody knives, crack pipes, dildos of many colors and shapes.
There have been fights between audience members—a heckler was silenced when someone a few seats away chucked a shoe at him. Cast members have been injured during performances. Christopher Henley, who played the title character in Killer Joe in 2001, dislocated his shoulder in a fight scene during the press preview. Henley finished the show in considerable pain, but no critic took note of the injury.
“Fucking punk,” Allen says.
But Cherry Red has never been a full-time commitment for its crew and company of actors. Managing Director Jennifer Ambrosino works at the Brookings Institution; Debelack teaches at the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory; Allen moved to New York eight years ago and is the marketing director for the MCC Theater in the West Village. That’s part of the reason Allen and his collaborators have decided to bring their raunchy antics to a close.
And after a decade and a half of productions for which descriptors like “balls-out” and “tits-out” are literal rather than metaphorical, there’s not much left to do. Last year’s Wife Swappers, a well-reviewed morality tale set at a swingers party, was Cherry Red’s first stage production in six years. The company made a pair of films in the interim, including Snuff.mov, an adaptation of its 2002 play Thumbsucker that features numerous blood-drenched scenes of mid- and post-coital slayings.
Besides, by ending Cherry Red for good, Allen can stop being the mouthpiece for a group whose members have always considered themselves more of a collective than a formal company and go back to “being [an] actual fucking human being.” Still, he’s managed to eke some fun out of his role. A feature on D.C.’s creative class in the March 2003 issue of Washingtonian included a profile of Cherry Red. The press-shy Allen resisted sitting for a photo, but the magazine insisted. So Allen sent Richard Renfield, one of his actors, in his place wearing a fur coat and dollar-sign pendant. The photo ran, captioned “Ian Allen.” Washingtonian never realized the hoax.
Cherry Red claims it’s never been in the business of purposefully shocking its audience, even if, according to Allen, the Washington Post critic sent to Thumbsucker spent the entire performance with her face buried in her hands. Nevertheless, a list of the cast and crew’s most cherished memories includes moments like “Monique [LaForce] eating shit” and “Arch Campbell getting spanked by zombie girls.”
So, for its final show, Cherry Red is giving the audience what it’s always thought it was getting—unrelenting vulgarity and perversion. On Aug. 27, dozens of the company’s alumni will reconvene at the Warehouse Theater for The Aristocrats, a live enactment of the joke about a family that performs acts of incest, bestiality, and coprophilia. But whatever happens in the two shows that night—which is also a fundraiser for the District of Columbia Arts Center—it will mark the end of Cherry Red Productions. Someone else will have to take up the cause of snuff films, zombie cats, bloodstained dildos, and fucking with the local press.
I meet Allen in his Pentagon City hotel, where he’s tuning up the Aristocrats script with Debelack. Allen’s hair is shaved into a wide mohawk, and his right arm is spiraled with tattoos. When I arrive, he’s trying to unsheathe a stubborn banana using a potato peeler he found in his extended-stay suite’s kitchen. It’s a little absurd, but perhaps appropriate for a Cherry Red encounter.
The company may have filled one of the lower niches in the local theater scene, but there’s nothing wrong with that. The desire to watch simulated acts of sex and violence is as old as theater itself. Following a long, demoralizing tragedy, Roman audiences as far back as the fourth century BCE would stay in their seats for an Atellan farce, a collection of dirty jokes and bawdy parodies—in other words, “The Aristocrats” of the age.
Debelack and Allen won’t share too many of the details of their staging just yet, but they hope to stretch the joke to an hour. So far, there’s a mohel, a person-sized ass, an actor dressed as a penis, another one dressed as a vagina, and at least “a page and a half” of continuous bodily functions.
I’ve always viewed “The Aristocrats” as a kind of comedic endurance test. After Paul Provenza’s 2005 documentary about the gag came out, a friend and I used the April Fool’s edition of our college newspaper to publish our own version. Read aloud, it lasts about four minutes. Gilbert Gottfried’s famous telling of the joke at a Friars Club roast just days after Sept. 11, 2001, runs about nine. A full hour of “The Aristocrats” seems almost unfathomable.
But if there’s one constant among every iteration of “The Aristocrats,” it’s that workshopping the joke in public earns scoffs and raised eyebrows. On Saturday night, Allen was in a restaurant with some colleagues hashing out more bombastic tricks to use in The Aristocrats. A diner at the neighboring table overheard the conversation and turned to Allen with a look that screamed, “Did he just say ‘dog cum’?”
Yes, in fact, Allen had just said “dog cum” in a crowded restaurant.