Washington Post - April 13, 2005

Arts Beat

From Cherry Red, A Latter-Day Silent Film Premiere

By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page C05

Cherry Red Productions has contributed some of the more, um, colorful titles -- "Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack," "Zombie Attack!" and a couple that can't be printed in this newspaper -- to Washington's theater scene over the past decade.

Now the company is ready to unveil another evocatively named project, "Trapped by the Mormons." Only this time, Cherry Red has channeled its efforts toward the screen instead of the stage. "Trapped by the Mormons" is a film -- and a silent one, at that. In fact, it's a pretty faithful remake of a 1922 British movie of the same name, part of a flourishing anti-Mormon propaganda genre at the time.

Stacey Whitmire, in her "drag king" persona Johnny Kat, portrays a Mormon missionary in "Trapped by the Mormons." (Cherry Red Productions)
The melodramatic, misconception-laden tale centers on the villainous Isoldi Keane, a Mormon with hypnotic powers who lures young women away from their families so they can be sent to Utah, where terrible fates -- including polygamy -- await them. Isoldi takes a particular interest in Nora Prescott and a bevy of her beautiful friends, and Nora's rescue from Isoldi's mesmerizing clutches fleshes out the plot.

Cherry Red spent $10,000 to create its version of "Trapped," shot over four weekends last fall in a makeshift studio at the Clark Street Playhouse in Crystal City. (The digital video footage was later altered to give the effect of old black-and-white film stock.) Ian Allen, Cherry Red's artistic director, adapted and directed "Trapped," which debuts next week at the Warehouse Screening Room, a new venue in the Warehouse arts complex on Seventh Street NW.

Allen's biggest change was casting a woman, Stacey Whitmire, in her "drag king" persona of Johnny Kat, as Isoldi. Allen also tweaked a few plot points, spiced up some sequences with violence and nudity, and commissioned an original electronic score.

But watching both films -- the earlier version is available on home video -- reveals a remarkably similar look and structure. As over the top as Cherry Red manages to go with "Trapped," the original -- which has a small following for its camp value -- is not that far behind. In terms of comic and visual effect for contemporary audiences, has Cherry Red created anything substantially different than what already existed? And has the company waded into the same waters of anti-Mormon bigotry as the film's predecessor?

"The movie is a little more wink-wink than a lot of stuff Cherry Red has done," says Allen, who grew up in a Mormon family and remains "fascinated" by Mormon culture despite no longer practicing the religion himself. "Hopefully people will get a laugh out of it." He adds that the film's humor comes from such an obvious distortion of Mormon beliefs, and that his film also parodies the original's ill-informed bigotry.

After visiting Cherry Red's "Trapped by the Mormons" Web site and watching a trailer, Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, said the film's anti-Mormon theme did not concern church officials.

"With something like this, it is over the top and we don't take it seriously," Farah said. "Nobody can possibly take this seriously." (Mormon film-viewing guidelines, incidentally, will preclude church members from seeing the new "Trapped" due to its brief nudity.)

Another recent adaptation of a propaganda film, "Reefer Madness," changed dramatically in the process: The 1938 film was the basis for a stage musical a few years ago that Showtime adapted and will air on Saturday. But Allen says his version of "Trapped" was destined to be a silent film. He originally considered the material for a stage project, though even then he envisioned it in the style of a silent movie.

The company decided last year to take a hiatus from producing full seasons of shows, giving it the opportunity to pursue a film project for the first time.

"A lot of our amateurishness was well suited to re-creating the early years of filmmaking," says Allen. "If the lighting is bad in a scene, it just looks that much more like a bad silent film."

There's also more going on in Cherry Red's "Trapped," Allen says, emphasizing the gender role play in Isoldi's casting as a pivotal point in the film's revision.

"I wanted Isoldi to be a little queer," he points out. "The young girl is tempted away by something a little strange -- a little sexy. By the end, she goes back to what's safe. But she's also unsure at the end. The story works on many levels."

Trapped by the Mormons at the Warehouse Screening Room, 1021 Seventh St. NW. April 22-May 14. $8. Call 202-298-9077 or visit www.trappedbythemormons.com.