Theatrical company Mad Haus keeps Portsmouth, New Hampshire, weird one Red Light Series show at a time.
Ask Brandon James to summarize Mad Haus, the performance collective currently curating the Red Light series at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and you’ll get a series of answers as wild and varied as the shows themselves. “Our first show in January was like Burning Man at the end of the world, with time travelers,” he says. “And a little bit Alice in Wonderland. And then we had a Witch-Con show—like Comic-Con, but for witches. It’s sci-fi, time travel, heaven and hell, angels and demons and vampires and witches. And tons of drag queens and freaks.”
But it’s also a “performance portmanteau,” James adds, a hybrid theater experience that brings together a dozen different art forms. Cirque performers and jugglers and musicians and speed painters and puppeteers all come on stage together each month for a performance that happens only once. Add all that together, and you wind up with Mad Haus’ mission statement. “The art and message of Mad Haus is that it’s a big fucking party,” James says, laughing.
It’s a party firmly in its bacchanalian groove. James and partner Ben Hart, who produce shows under the moniker of The Mad Men of Oopsy Daisy Inc!, took over curatorial duties for the Red Light Series in January. In the last eight months, they’ve mashed up genres and aesthetics and technology, and brought a dedicated troupe of artists to Portsmouth, all as part of the Red Light Series’ mission to “keep Portsmouth weird.” The next show takes place Wednesday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m.
Part variety show, part ongoing story, each installment of Mad Haus features a recurring cast of characters involved in interdimensional hijinks and cross-time capers. Backed by a live band and accompanied by cyr wheel artists, jugglers, puppets, among others, the characters live, die, come back to life, and, most of all, sing. Hart and James start writing each Mad Haus production by compiling a playlist of songs; that playlist forms the base of the story, which the actors then flesh out.
Each show is “direct proof magic exists,” James says. “We’re putting these shows together in a matter of days, and somehow, it always works. It’s always beautiful and amazing.”
It’s a sort of “organic performance art,” Hart adds, and part of the fun is pushing the artists involved into new areas. “We’ve had people come who are musical theater performers, but they love to paint, and now they’re doing live speed painting on stage every month,” he says.
Hart is originally from New Hampshire, and the two returned to the Seacoast region in 2013 after years of living and performing in New York City. Hart toured with Avenue Q off Broadway for two years, and when they began looking for a change in scenery, the Seacoast hit all their requirements, according to James. “Ben and I left New York City to be involved in this community that is super thriving and rife with art. There’s nowhere else in the country that you have as many theaters and venues and as much live art as we do here,” says James.
That each show happens only once pushes Hart, James, and the rest to take risks, improvise, and let the wild material guide them. “The ephemeral nature of the show is so sexy to me,” James says. “This little universe opens for two hours, and if you were there, you’re the only people who witnessed it.”
The hijinks extend beyond the stage. Audiences are encouraged to come in costume, and many have obliged by dressing up as their favorite character. It’s a chance for performers and audience alike to let their freak-flag fly, Hart says. But it’s more than that. “We strive to show fantastic high art and exciting conceptual art that someone who wants to see something beautiful and moving can access,” he says.
Top image: Jason Faria as Bonesy. Photo by the Mad Men of Ooopsy Daisy Inc!