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From a cloud of smoke in a neon green-lit room at House of Yes emerged Reefer Madness star Christian Campbell. “Welcome to the reefer den!” people screamed through cackles.
Over a decade after the release of the 2005 movie, the actor is partnering with Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney to create an off-Broadway remake, and this week, he put his skills to the test. On Friday, some of the show’s stars and creators gathered in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick for an all-immersive film screening of the cult classic — starring Kristen Bell as Mary Lane and Campbell as Jimmy Harper — with live performances by the theater crew.
“It’s part theater, part cinema, part circus, part cosplay, part cannabis con,” Studney, one of the musical film’s screenwriters who has also served as an understudy in past theater productions of the show, told The Hollywood Reporter.
As performers scattered around the Brooklyn event space getting ready to hit the stage, others downed fruity cocktails, perused the pop-up shops in the backyard and dove into the artists’ nest for a preshow thrill.
Film fans, dressed in Prohibition-era attire, began swing dancing under the flying unicorn heads, blinking eyeball lights and disco balls in the main room. A female performer covered in red paint and dressed as the devil joined the crowd, as did her angelic counterpart.
“People come for the content, but they stay for the community,” said Campbell.
In a back corner, smiling to himself and taking it all, in was Ethan Slater. The actor — who is best known for his leading role in the SpongeBob SquarePants musical, for which he received a Tony Award nomination — played Jimmy in the recent workshop production of Reefer Madness.
At the interactive screening, Slater sang “Cautionary Tale,” a new song from the theater revival, garnering wild applause from the audience. The tune — based off of the original 1936 film — is meant to be a parody of the propaganda culture around drugs.
Speaking of how the new play will be different from the films, Slater told THR: “There’s an attempt to make sure we’re aware of where we are now versus where we were 20 years ago. It’s a really different sociopolitical awareness for a lot of people, and I think it’s so important when you’re talking about weed and weed culture that you are aware of all of the different kinds of impacts that it has on the justice system, etc.”
Slater said that in his mind, BBQ films — started 12 years ago by the husband-and-wife team of Gabriel Rhoads and Lauren Lickus — is able to convey that message in the immersive show built around the cult film, and “without losing any of the parody, or the comedy, or the fun of it, they’re trying to reconcile those things in a really cool way.”
Although Slater is all for the laughs, he agrees that joking about drug use is hardly an easy task in 2019. “There’s an opioid crisis, so it’s really problematic,” he said. Vilifying marijuana, however, knowing it can actually help people, is also an issue.
At the screening — which was part of BBQ Films’ Green Screen series — the team introduced a fellow reefer fan, Coltyn Turner, who credits marijuana with saving his life. The now-19-year-old was once told by doctors that he’d never walk again, but after trying CBD oil, weed pens and cannabis edibles, his illness went into complete remission. One year later, he was out of his wheelchair and climbing mountains.
Slater says he hopes to help “bring light to problematic systems of oppression” in today’s political system.
Between scenes at the screening, the cast paused the film to showcase their own acts. One of the most notable performances of the evening came from a drag queen named Ellia J. Garlands. Led by musical director Lance Horne, the lady in green sang “Kindergarten Teachers,” a new song from the production.
“Do we have enough time to smoke a joint?” she asked Horne as acrobats dangling from cages and dressed like weed fairies tossed bags of brownies to the audience.
“We were inspired to bring Reefer Madness back because cannabis is so topical today and so is propaganda, ‘fake news,’ and all that. So it just seems like the right time,” America Olivo, co-producer on the upcoming musical, told THR, adding that while it’s hard to discuss topics such as drugs, sex and violence, humor is often the way to go.
While Campbell agreed, he added that the team had to make some heavy changes to the script in order to make it more appropriate for the times. “Since we did it 20 years ago, some jokes don’t fly anymore,” he said, explaining that the “rape me” joke in the film told by Ana Gasteyer’s character, Mae, is no longer okay. “Even when we did that we knew we were making a comment on sexual abuse, as a way to say, ‘That was typical’ [back in the 1930s]. But we can’t even do that now.”
“It’s a type of humor that you have to walk a fine line with,” added Olivo.
Despite the hurdles they’ve encountered while building the new production, the couple is confident they’re on the right track. “It does say something, even though it’s zany and it’s a comedy, it does have something to say,” said Campbell about the Reefer Madness storyline.
As the screen actor finished his thought, black-and-white scenes from the 1936 original film flashed on the projector screen. “It’s 50 minutes you’ll never get back,” Campbell warned. “You can only get through it if you’re stoned.”
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