Review: ‘Hells Canyon’ at Theater Mu

three actors perform on stage
“Hells Canyon” features (from left to right) Becca Claire Hart, Gregory Yang and Kaitlyn Cheng.
Courtesy of Theater Mu and Rich Ryan

Updated: March 3, 12:20 p.m. | Posted: March 1, 1:22 p.m.

Keiko Green’s “Hells Canyon,” which Theater Mu premiered last week in Minneapolis, tackles the sizable demands of staging horror — and gives us more to chew on than just blood and gore.

Horror can be difficult to nail — it’s challenging to incorporate elements of suspense and mystery to keep audiences engaged. The genre isn’t monolithic either: It includes a daunting variety of stories, from “The Silence of the Lambs” to “Killer Klowns from Outer Space.”

“Hells Canyon” is set in a remote cabin in Oregon — reminding me of the classic “Evil Dead” — and follows a group of friends, most of them in a band together. Their lives are complicated by a surrogate pregnancy and arguments over music rights, and now they must also battle a supernatural force controlling the elements.

Alongside classic horror tropes, the play pulls from a real-world tragedy. In 1887, 34 Chinese gold miners were killed by a gang of white men in Hells Canyon, Ore. To this day, only a handful of victims’ names have been identified. Audiences who want to learn more about the “Snake River Massacre” are encouraged to read about it in the play’s program, and at a display in the lobby.

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The history of the canyon influences the characters of the play, some of whom have ancestral connections to the land and its horrific history. The group’s makeup — including the whitest couple you know, a set of Chinese American siblings and a man of mixed-race heritage — sets up conflicts around ownership of female bodies and the role racism plays in how we see others’ humanity, if at all. The main theme of “Hells Canyon” can be best summarized by a quote from the show: “History can haunt you.”

The play recalls the films of Jordan Peele, especially “Get Out” — something the playwright acknowledges. Like Peele’s work, “Hells Canyon” looks at racism and how non-white bodies have been used and viewed in American history.

The script tackles these hard conversations and provides nuanced characters. Everyone has moments where they act selfishly or say ignorant things, but also have moments where we see their internal struggles.

Director Katie Bradley gives us moments of true terror and comedy, intertwined with intimate moments that feel deeply grounded.   

At points in my viewing of the show, the performers felt a bit stiff and awkward. I’m not sure if this was due to it being early in the run, or if that was the point, and the dialogue was not to my liking. But when the show dug into its story, I was enthralled by the performances. Lead actress Kaitlyn Cheng especially shines as a pregnant character. Ryan Colbert brings a down-to-earth, skater-dude vibe that helps cut through the heavy material.  

a group of actors perform on stage
The cast of “Hells Canyon." The show runs at the Jungle Theater through March 17.
Courtesy of Theater Mu and Rich Ryan

“Hells Canyon” is a short show, running about a hundred minutes, and feels like it goes much faster. The horror elements are there, giving audiences moments to gasp and jump, but it’s also full of funny moments that help cut the tension.

The music and lighting set the mood for a chilling tale. Lighting designed by Karin Olson and projections co-designed by Peter Morrow and Ryan Stopera give the wilderness a personality of its own. The music and sound designed and composed by Katharine Horowitz stand out in creating an atmosphere that drives home the spooky story.

“Hells Canyon” is enjoyable — well-written and acted. But it did lose me a bit at the end. Its message of history influencing our futures comes through — offering a hopeful note, that traumatic cycles can be broken.

I wonder if it sticks the landing as well as it could. It seems like the play wants to end with the message that revenge leads to more trauma — and that the future can hold something better if we work for it.

I can see what the playwright is going for, but the final monologue confused me on its way to underlining that theme.

“Hells Canyon” runs at the Jungle Theater through March 17, presented by Theater Mu.