Hollywood plays 'Hell' for laughs

Version of morality play will close on Halloween

Thursday, October 28, 2004 Posted: 8:47 AM EDT (1247 GMT)

LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- Hollywood's version of life in hell closes on Halloween, ending one of the most popular plays in town -- a show where stars vyed to play Satan and theatergoers reeled from graphic scenes of rape, abortion, suicide, cannibalism and loud heavy metal music.

Called "Hollywood Hell House," the show is a revival of a deadly earnest morality play, written by a Colorado preacher, the Rev. Keenan Roberts, for Christian fundamentalists.

It is played as parody in Los Angeles -- with, miracle of miracles, not a single word change.

With a rotating cast of celebrities, including Bill Maher, Penn Gillette and Richard Belzer playing Satan, "Hollywood Hell House" has become the hottest show in town since it opened in August.

Audiences are led through eight rooms brimming with fake blood and gore to show the evils of sin. With scenes of abortion, gang rape, human sacrifice and a high school shooting, the show is not for the faint of heart.

More than a few of the thousands who have seen it have fainted or vomited. Although viewed by most audiences in hip Hollywood as a satire, the show was scripted by Roberts to promote a serious "Sin and go to Hell" message.

"We do the script verbatim, to the letter and couldn't parody it any better had we written it ourselves," said Maggie Rowe, one of the play's four producers.

Roberts, who attended opening night and claimed the Hollywood production was not his material, nevertheless partied with the cast afterward.

Rowe discovered the work by watching a documentary, "Hell House," about a production in Texas. Posing as the director of a youth group, she bought Roberts' "Hell House" outreach kit, which includes a script and tips on marketing the show.

Financed for $15,000, Rowe says most of the money went to buy special effects, costuming and props.

The show runs for 35 minutes and is performed 10 times in the course of an evening. "Hollywood Hell House" had a devoted following, with many repeaters in attendance.

As for devout Christians and true believers attending the show, Rowe says she did not run into any problems. One night, she said a group of 30 arrived. "They were Christians who came thinking it was a real "Hell House." They ... thought it was great. But they didn't understand why people were laughing."