It’s dark. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme has just finished administering a tab of acid to each of us in the group. A blacklight turns on, illuminating the four once-black walls now covered in wild, white scribbled messages. These ceiling-to-floor anarchic rantings and ravings are spilled straight from Charles Manson’s maniacal mastermind. My eyes glow with wonder as I witness the freaky-deaky hippie orgy unfold before me. Squeaky and Susan Atkins dance around Manson while psychedelic music fills the tiny room. It would seem that Helter Skelter is upon us.
Based on John Moran’s 1990 play (staged only once in the U.S.), The Manson Family: An Opera is a reimagining of Moran’s original vision restructured to suit an immersive audience. Directed by Troy Heard and housed at the Majestic Repertory Theatre in Las Vegas, this multi-sensory experience takes its audience on a room-to-room walk-through telling the story of infamous cult leader Charles Manson and his “family” of followers. And followers are exactly what the audience will be, too – they will observe scenes rather than having the agency to interact or involve themselves in the narrative. A couple of notes regarding allergies and sensitivities: The experience does involve smoke, hay, and strobe lights – something which we were informed of prior to going inside the theater.
There is a strong thematic element of control at work – both gaining and spiraling out of. The Manson family is presented as a tightly-knit group of ne’er-do-wells led by an eccentric individual with a great deal of unique philosophies. It almost seems charming until the courtroom scene during which Manson physically lashes out at the judge multiple times. Peering inside Manson’s twisted mind, the audience can simultaneously sympathize and be horrified at the cult following over which Manson reigns. The repeated monologues and sounds are especially effective in showing the process of indoctrination into a cult following and a descent into complete detachment from reality.
The acting in The Manson Family: An Opera helps reinforce these moments of charm and horror. Richie Villafuerte’s captivating performance as Charles Manson has his audience hanging on his every word. Villafuerte’s eye contact and intensity as Manson truly capture the demeanor of a sociopath – calculated, controlling, and completely out of his mind. Steffan Scrogan’s portrayal of The Prosecutor is haunting. His opening scene inside the Tate household intrigues from the start as he is jostled repeatedly by an unseen force, foreshadowing the final courtroom brawl scene. Matching Villafuerte’s charisma are his followers: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (played by Jamie Riviere) and Susan Atkins (played by Ashley Valigura). Listening to Riviere’s operatic song as Fromme in the Spahn Ranch scene is eerily beautiful. Valigura moves like water, dancing around the room and posing in between flashes of a blacklight; the different and odd poses she strikes are captivating in their bizarre and repetitive nature. Additionally, watching Riviere and Valigura mimicking their Manson family counterparts against actual footage of said family members (acting in tandem with a video projection behind them) truly shows a sense of dedication and commitment to their characters. The great deal of care and effort on the part of the actors in their portrayals of each character is obvious.
As each scene takes place in a different room, the set design is vital to the success of the show, both in terms of immersing the audience as well as the storytelling. The entire atmosphere is expertly crafted – the scent diffusers, smoke, and lighting all work together to perfectly simulate each scenario. Everything is, of course, dimly lit; however, the use of spot and strobe lighting effectively helps direct the attention of the audience where it needs to go. The Manson Family opens with the audience at the feet of a larger-than-life vintage television set with scenes of Walter Cronkite sharing news about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as images (taken from real film footage) are splashed across the screen. Squeaky Fromme walks around the audience with a lit joint in her hand, peering at guests with curiosity. She is watching them watch the news before she brings them into the action of the narrative. Next, the Tate residence in the aftermath of the murders is covered in yellow caution tape and a chilling message on the door. This mysterious and foreboding setup builds anticipation within the audience as they listen to The Prosecutor sing. Moving through the story, the audience finds themselves on a Pan Am flight with a plucky stewardess dancing her way through the in-flight safety instructions and serving drinks. This moves the action to sunny southern California, where Manson and his family take refuge at Spahn Ranch. In the ranch scene, the audience is seated on real bales of hay around a campfire, listening to Squeaky Fromme making love to her rifle, and watching Manson brainwash Susan Atkins. The LSD orgy scene is the most memorable, particularly the moment in which the lights reveal the literal writing on the walls. This furthers the narrative in showing the complete and unwavering control Manson has over his followers. The story ends in a courtroom wherein the audience plays the jury, watching Manson ranting and lunging at the judge multiple times before he is ultimately captured and jailed.
The atmosphere created by The Manson Family inserts viewers straight into the narrative and allows them to cast their own judgments on the madman Manson. One highlight is the physicality of the performers which help set the scene as audiences are moved through each immersive environment. The acting happens in a 360-degree view and I couldn’t help but crane my neck to see more as I sat on a bale of hay in the Spahn Ranch room watching. However, the only issue I had with the experience was that prior to the start of the show, we were not advised to turn off our phones or toss out any food or beverages. This led to people walking through the rooms holding drinks in their hands. While this may be an intentional choice – ensuring we are all spectators in the horrors that come to pass, an ill-timed cell phone ring or slurp of a straw can break the immersion. These heavy themes deserve our attention, and it is distracting to see other audience members being so nonchalant in the face of chaos.
The musical compositions and sound design are all originally done by creator John Moran. A protégé of Phillip Glass, Moran’s use of repetition is evident in the soundscapes and dialogue, something that director Heard had told us at the beginning to pay attention to. In Heard’s own words, the repetition is intentional, ritualistic, and verging on liturgical. It is the exact means by which cult leaders gain the devotion of their followers. The use of repetition to emphasize certain sounds or pieces of dialogue is a unique method for drawing the audience’s attention to key points in the narrative. For example, in the Spahn Ranch scene, Manson rants to Fromme and Atkins multiple times, delivering the same monologue over and over. The characters’ unwavering interest in Manson’s bizarre ranting – no matter how many times he repeats himself – exemplifies the level of devotion of his followers. Everything in the musical works so well together that it truly brings the audience inside the mind of Manson and his family. The dark themes of brainwashing and sinister intent are evident as these women fall under Manson’s spell right before the audience’s eyes.
All facets of The Manson Family: An Opera combine into an entirely memorable and appropriately disturbing experience in the best way possible. As mere observers, we are powerless to stop the action and are instead made to watch, helpless and horrified. I would advise going into this play with some prior knowledge of the Manson family, simply because the story will make more sense; however, sight unseen, the experience is still valuable and enchanting. With the action happening all around and the atmosphere appealing to all five senses, one cannot help but get sucked into the story as it unfolds before their eyes.
The Manson Family: An Opera runs through December 8th; purchase tickets HERE. Find out more about Majestic Repertory Theatre on their website, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook page. Check out our Event Guide for more immersive and musical events throughout the year.