By ELIZA BENT
Welcome to Borough Play, our exclusive series on theatre in Brooklyn, Queens, and beyond
You might think that a musical billed as a "pop horror fashion show" would require a fair amount of research. But for playwright Joshua Conkel, whose The House of Von Macramé runs at the Bushwick Starr through Feb. 9, writing came fairly instinctually.
"I was a latchkey kid," he explains. "Every day after school I'd go to the video store and rent a different movie." When Conkel ran out of typical fair like Friday the 13th he turned to European horror movies. In particular, Suspiria and other Italian giallos, or hrillers. "There's always a black-gloved killer and maybe a supernatural element. These movies are always super stylish and glamorous."
In Conkel's The House of Von Macramé, which features spooky synth music by Matt Marks, we meet Britt, a young aspiring model who comes to New York City and gets swept under the wing of Edsel Von Macramé, an eccentric fashion designer. "She begins to have psychic visions of other models being murdered," says Conkel, "and she begins to suspect that Edsel may be a part of this."
For years Conkel wanted to write a play that had built-in runway shows. "This was my excuse to do just that," he declares. At first Conkel didn't know the play would necessarily be a horror story. "I was interested in creating a piece that celebrated costumes," he says. But costumery and horror have collided in an aesthetic explosion. Three fashion houses compete in the play, each with its own sartorial signatures. Tristan Raines, who has designed costumes for Tribes, has created more than 150 confections for the 14 actors to try on.
Budget wise, The House of Von Macramé is a major step forward for the Management, Conkel's theatre company. "We've raised way more money than we ever have before; this show has really challenged us as producers," says Conkel, who has previous produced in more fringe and independent settings where production values, like costume budgets, often get lowered due to high costs. "Despite our bigger budget, it's still a shoestring for a costume designer, but Tristan has done an amazing job," he adds. Many looks were created from scratch, but a number have been repurposed or deconstructed from previously existing pieces.
The Bushwick Starr is a pint-sized theatre with little offstage room to change, so getting costumes on and off became an artistic choice. "We've staged the show in a kind of Brechtian manner," says Conkel, who admits that an upstairs rehearsal space is stuffed to the gills with costumes and props and that the theatre's hallways---which the Starr shares with artist lofts---also brim with clothing racks. "Hopefully, no one will steal anything," Conkel deadpans.
Conkel, who loves fashion but has no professional fashion background in it, professes a hatred for materialism. "Label whoring really bugs me and it's something I'm excited to make fun of," he shares. "This is a really kitschy comedy about career, ambition, and jealousy. It's a B-movie onstage. I hope people enter into it with campy, late-night drunken excitement."
Eliza Bent is a playwright, performer, and journalist living in Brooklyn
Photo by Kate Hess