“Welcome to Cherry Red, Washington’s only production company dedicated to Jesus.” Sometimes the narrator introducing the show says “smut” instead of “Jesus.” After flashing an ID to get into the play, often staged in a bar, company members hand the audience garbage bags to protect themselves from fluids that may fly during the performance.
Sound disrespectful and crazy? Well, it is. According to Cherry Red’s Web site, their off-beat plays are “an irreverent approach to a serious theme.”
Ian Allen and Chris Griffin co-founded Cherry Red in 1995. The two met through a mutual friend several years ago with the idea to produce one of Allen’s plays, “The Queen’s Chef.”
“Both Ian and I wanted to see something like Cherry Red in D.C.,” Griffin said. “We wanted to make theater for people with rock and roll attention spans.”
One of Cherry Red’s favorite liquids to squirt at the audience is blood. Hundreds of characters have died gory on-stage deaths since the company began.
The company hosts its plays in rotating venues. Currently, they are performing at Warehouse Next Door at 1017 7th St. NW. The play is “Spamlet,” a flippant twist on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” by up-and-coming playwright Anton Dudley (“Romeo and Juliatric”).
“Spamlet” exposes the audience to sexual encounters on a Greyhound bus, pill popping, hard drinking, flying fluids and splashy musical numbers concerning topics like pedophilia and an exchange student from India. In the play, a Mormon skinhead runs a schpam (Cherry Red’s word for Spam) factory, Yale is blamed for everything and the American dream is just another manifestation of the Oedipus complex.
According to Cherry Red’s mission statement, they are “dedicated to plays that appeal first to the body and then to the mind.” This means frontal nudity is not an issue for the actors or the production company.
“I have a lot of naked rolls,” actor Richard Renfield said. Renfield has appeared in several Cherry Red productions, including “Salome,” “Poona the Fuckdog and Other Plays for Children” and “Baked Baby.” In “Spamlet” he dons only a red straw mullet.
“Once I forgot (the mullet) and went out onstage,” Renfield said. “I was naked then. But I can handle it otherwise. I don’t get nervous anymore.”
Renfield began working for Cherry Red in 1998 because they were the first company to hire him when he chose to act. He’s worked there ever since.
Cherry Red features a couple of GW alumni, including producing director Rabbi Weiss. Known as Michelle Weiss while she attended GW, the liberal arts major and theater minor graduated in 2001. Weiss began working with local theater companies while still at GW. She helped produce plays with the Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company before moving to the Shakespeare Theater. Weiss contacted Allen in search of advice on ways to produce and shoot out fake blood. Seeing their similar theatrical values, Allen invited her to join Cherry Red. Weiss did a couple of Cherry Red productions while still working with the Shakespeare Theater, then permanently joined Cherry Red less than two years ago.
“I never considered not staying in D.C. after graduation,” Weiss said. “I was already very involved with Cherry Red. In fact, I went straight from my graduation ceremony to an audition.”
Weiss spends her weekdays working a nine-to-five job, but said Cherry Red is always on her mind.
“Cherry Red consumes my thoughts, energy and life,” Weiss said. “It’s a labor of love and you have to have a lot of passion for it.”
Among her favorite tasks are determining the best way to shoot blood across the stage and searching for the perfect dildo, Weiss added.
When putting together a production, Weiss works hard to include everyone and to create an atmosphere of respect and creativity. She said her aim is to convey to the audience that everyone in Cherry Red is involved in every aspect of the production.
Weiss said everyone does everything. Actors take care of their own props and costumes and come out after a performance to wipe the fluids off the stage.
“It is really surprising the amount of preparation (we go through) for something so wild,” Renfield said.
The average rehearsal time for a play is about a month and a half.
“Some of us handle (mistakes) better than others,” Renfield said. “You try to get the audience to enjoy it rather than have them feel lost. Those of us with classical training will have an easier time of improvising than others.”
Allen is also a playwright. Some of his writing includes “Baked Baby,” “Angel Shit” and the upcoming “Thumbsucker.” He writes, directs and acts in many of his plays.
“There is certainly a career in writing and in theater,” Allen said. “The struggling artist stereotype is not necessarily true. It is very possible to be successful. But it’s a lot of work.”
Weiss added that the most important credential is experience.
“You can defiantly make it out there, all you have to do is actually get out there,” she said.
Many people involved with Cherry Red still have day jobs, ranging from composing classical music to interpreting contracts. But the company hopes to grow and is looking for ways to expand their audiences.
“Small rock venues make good performance spaces because they treat me well,” Allen said. “I get to put up a play and they get to sell a lot of booze to the audience. So we both come away having done well.”
Cherry Red has performed at venues like Metro Cafe at 1522 14th St., which is temporarily closed, and the D.C. Arts Center at 2438 18th St. The company performs anywhere from four to six plays each year.
Weiss said she has anticipated a six-show season, which the compound is now doing for the first time. She would also like to see her job with Cherry Red become full-time.
Co-founder Griffin has since left Cherry Red to start his own production company, Glamonstrosity Inc., which is “dedicated to bringing B movies back from the dead.” He also runs the Rosebud Film and Video Festival here in D.C.
Griffin said he hopes Cherry Red will maintain a balance between the dark and more serious plays like “Thumbsucker” and the fun and goofy like “Poona the Fuckdog” and “Spamlet.” He also said he hopes Cherry Red will continue to put on its “creativity fests” like “Seven Deadly Dwarfs” and the up-coming “Dingleberries.” They are a collection of short plays by a variety of local playwrights.
“People like smut, therefore people like me being naked,” Renfield said.
“It’s just smut and bodily fluids and fowl language and the things that most companies shun because they’re not ‘legitimate’ enough. You wouldn’t see Arena Stage doing any of this.”