Drawn to the Macabre: A Portrait of Playwright Stefan Roseen
“I wrote a story when I was little where this girl falls into a pig pen and gets eaten alive.”
Stefan once told me this as he wiped down a kitchen counter, or something. I don’t really remember that detail, only that whatever he was doing was common and forgettable. A contrast to his revelation. I said something along the lines of, “You must be joking,” or “What,” and he nodded and snorted. Casual as the plates he was stacking. (Or whatever.)
“You know that part in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy falls in the pig pen in the beginning and everyone freaks out?” he continued. “I think I was inspired by that.” He shrugged, his shoulders like punctuation marks.
“I never quite understood why everyone got so panicked,” I said. “I always thought it was because they could have trampled her, or something.”
“Trample her to death or eat her alive,” Stefan said. He turned his head toward me but his eyes remained on the dish; they flashed like a flare gun. “Pigs can eat people. Eat them. Like, what?”
“Are you sure? I think I have to look that up.”
“So you just wrote this story one day.”
“Mmhm. It was called The Chicken Opera. Or wait… that was a different story.”
“What the hell?”
“Yeah. My mom was pretty concerned. She started monitoring what I was watching more.”
“Every kid has seen The Wizard of Oz, though,” I laugh. Then fake a frown. “But that part probably didn’t stick out to every kid so much, ha.”
“I think that part stuck out the most for me.”
We considered and remembered as the drain sucked up the remaining filthy water.
“That movie was actually pretty scarring,” I said. “Those monkeys? No. And the poppies irrationally freaked me out. And those talking trees…”
“I don’t know why so many people think it’s light-hearted movie. It’s actually kind of grotesque, if you think about it.”
“But it’s so pretty and the music is so touching.”
“It’s a trick!”
Stefan spun around and brandished a butter knife, either declaring war on this piece of foolery or celebrating it with a metallic toast. His eyes flared again, the lines framing his mouth quivered in a sneer, and I realized it was the latter. The cavalier way in which he broke the news that he wrote “some pretty dark stuff” at the tender age of ten veiled a barely-suppressed giddiness. Stefan just lives for the macabre.
But if The Wizard of Oz is any indication, it’s not gore of the slasher-film variety that captures Mr. Roseen’s attention: it’s the misplaced, disarming violence that intrigues him. The kind that belongs in parallels to this world but that you wouldn’t find in just any haunted house. The kind that asks you to take it seriously, but to suspend your disbelief for a moment. The kind that feels both familiar and alien.
If you were to see any of the past productions Stefan has directed or designed for, you would find all sorts of little chestnuts that point to his affinity for the macabre. Even in domestic settings—weeds sprouting through floorboards and crevices in the walls to illustrate abandonment and disuse. Garish makeup caked into the exaggerated wrinkles of an old woman’s face, her mouth stained. Erratic movements by actors surrounding a monologue to illustrate time passing or something shifting. Generally speaking, an entire aura of uneasiness.
But often these macabre pieces come with a punchline. Stefan’s artistic preferences also tend to carry a satirical or humorous element. For instance, when he directed a production of The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan by Phillip Klapperich, the character Skylights gets eaten alive by forest creatures (not unlike the girl in Stefan’s Chicken Opera… or, you know.) The scene is horrifying, ridiculous, grotesque—but people were laughing so hard they were in tears. Of course, the whole thing was played to be humorous. Nevertheless, one feels a little, shall we say, shameful to be laughing at such atrocity.
For Stefan, and many of us with The Impostors Theatre Co., this is what makes us so excited about the art we want to produce: it’s the duality of the thing. You cringe but you laugh. You cower but you peak through your fingers. The way you can feel four emotions at once in response to one moment. What is it that is so fascinating about the macabre? For one thing, you have to unpack it later because it’s so grueling at first. Stefan loves to unpack and dissect. Someone wrinkles their nose in distaste, Stefan rubs his hands together. “Why, why???” I’ll cry after harrowing scenes; Stefan’s eyebrows will waggle to say, “Why, indeed?”
Caged: An Allegory is no exception. In Mr. Roseen’s first full-length play, the macabre unfurls itself into a full backdrop of a more interesting conversation. I would go into more detail, but I don’t want to spoil anything. Hopefully the anticipation won’t eat you alive.
**Join us at COLLABORATION's Salon Theatre at 2pm this Saturday to be among the first to witness Caged: An Allegory.**