Actor Chris Fassbender still remembers the day over 10 years ago when playwright Marty Chan asked him to read the script for The Bone House. He'd worked with Chan---who is also a well-known writer of fiction for young adults and children---on several light-hearted comedies, but this was something totally different.
"I flipped through the script greedily," recalls Fassbender, over the phone from Vancouver. "And I was shocked, really shocked, that what Marty had written was a gruesome piece on serial killers."
The play is structured as a lecture by Eugene Crowley, a self-declared expert on serial killers who has come to talk to the audience about a sadistic murderer called The Midnight Cowboy. The Cowboy's signature is that he always kills in front of an unwilling witness.
Fassbender got over his shock at the unexpected subject matter and agreed to play an almost lineless yet pivotal role as Crowley's assistant. The Bone House premiered at the Edmonton Fringe Festival in 1999 where word quickly spread that it offered a unique theatre experience, likely to scare the pants off even inveterate horror buffs.
"I don't like to build up the show so that there are unrealistic expectations," says Fassbender, who now plays Crowley rather than his assistant. "But I think the reason the show is so popular is that it's a really visceral experience. It's happening right in front of you and can't walk away from it. It's a lot like riding a rollercoaster."
One of the things Fassbender enjoys most about touring with this play is the feedback he gets from the audience while he is in character. Because he is acting as a lecturer, he gets to talk directly to people and feed off their reactions. "I get to share their fear," he says. "As a person in the show every night, I get kind of a kick out of the paranoia. If they take that home with them, I feel like we've done our job. But I have to say, this show even scares me sometimes."
Tracey Power, who plays a woman traumatized by witnessing The Midnight Cowboy at work, remembers seeing the play in Edmonton during its original run.
"When I first saw this play 10 years ago at the Fringe, I had never seen anything like it and I had never been so scared in the theatre," she says. "I think part of the reason it's been so popular is that besides being an interesting, well-written story, it's different from anything else that's out there."
Power says the play has developed a real cult following among high school and university students, but that she's been surprised by the wide demographic that seems to enjoy it. "We did one show in Edmonton where a couple came in with their walkers and I really wondered what their reaction would be. Turns out they loved it!"
The Bone House is part of the 17th annual SuperNova Theatre Festival which runs from April 28 to May 9 at Neptune Studio Theatre. This year, the festival includes a play about Edith Piaf's life, loves and music called Piaf: Love Conquers All; The Misfit, a dark but funny tale of an Indian family exerting pressure on the love life of a Canadian-born Kathak dancer; Chris Little's Merritt Award- winning puppet show Grandma Noda's Tigers; improvised one-act plays by Impromptu Splendor, and, to follow up on his successful 2009 run of the One Man Star Wars Trilogy, Charles Ross returns with his sure-to-be-popular One Man Lord of the Rings.