It’s a scene seemingly pulled out of a gruesome horror classic. Two men stuck in a room, splashing and sloshing around in a kiddie pool’s worth of blood and severed hands. But there’s a Shyamalan-worthy twist to this grim scene, currently splattering all over the Milwaukee Rep’s Steimke Studio as a part of its new show "Guards at the Taj," performing perfectly in time for the Halloween season.
It’s a comedy.
"It is! It actually is," explained Rep prop master Jim Guy. "It’s not precisely Laurel and Hardy, maybe. It is, of course, very dark, but when I read it, I said, ‘Man, this is a really good play.’ Then I saw a performance realized and it’s actually better played than read – which isn’t always the case."
Opening last Friday in the Steimke Studio and running through Nov. 4, "Guards at the Taj" is, in its own fascinating way, a kind of pitch black workplace buddy comedy taking place far back in the past – the 17th century, to be exact. As the title hints, the two friends are on duty as guards at the newly unveiled Indian marvel, a job that becomes much more grueling when they’re given the task of cleaving the hands off all the craftsmen that helped assemble the amazing structure – a total of 40,000 hands. (A famous myth about the Taj Mahal provides that gory story, one that’s gratefully considered apocryphal by historians.)
Thankfully playwright Rajiv Joseph’s time-hopping production skips the guards’ unpleasant de-handiwork, but it does pop in on the arterial-sprayed aftermath for a job less violent but no less unenviable: clean-up. Cue the pool of blood – and not some theater of the mind creation, but a literal pond of plasma – and cue Jim Guy, living up to his nickname of the Rep’s "blood guy."
The prop master earned the morbid moniker due to "a series of stupid career decisions and unfortunately successful inventions" while stage-managing his first show: a production of Broadway’s most infamously imbrued shows, "Sweeney Todd." Thanks to a procrastinating prop worker, a pressed-for-time Guy had 10 days to create the cut throats the show is iconic for. Five newly invented blood delivery systems and three types of blood later, he realized that props and spurting necks were his true calling – one that’s brought him to an all-new hemoglobin-drenched horror.
Of course, to create an authentic bloodbath on stage isn’t as simple as the classic corn syrup and red food coloring combination or as easy as running down to the Red Cross and swiping a few bags of O positive. (To say nothing of the gut-churning moral and health concerns.) For one, you need a lot of the fake human fuel; according to Guy, creating the pool for the Rep’s run of "Guards at the Taj" requires a total of about 67 to 70 gallons of the red goop, which will then drain out and be cleaned up throughout the scene by the two main characters.
And just one type of blood won’t cut it either.
"There’s actually about five or six different bloods in the show – different viscosities for different purposes," Guy explained. "The floor blood is a thinner, non-sticky mixture that’s as non-slippery as you can make a liquid. That is one consistency, because we don’t want that super thick and gooey; then they’ll never finish that scene then. Then it turns into ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ with more blood, performed over eight nights – one of which is strictly janitorial."
In addition to that mixture – which actually involves two different kinds of blood pumped together onto the stage – Guy also needed several other food product-based stage bloods with different viscosities for the splatter that gets on our cut-happy characters and their equipment, slightly thicker so it actually stays and sticks on the props like actual human blood.
"It is very convincing," he noted. "I would be willing to say that you could get a vial of real blood and look at it next to the stuff we’re putting on the guys and the tools, and if adjusted to the right viscosity, it would be very hard to tell the difference."
The company behind the fake blood (a trade secret that Guy says he basically knows, but won’t tell) offers the soupy mixture in four different colors, along with custom tones – which isn’t just perfect for your gritty, R-rated Vulcan slasher horror movie. While a fake blood may look good in regular light, the substance has to maintain its accurately hemoglobin-esque hue under fierce stage lighting.
"Just because it looks great here or up in the shop, suddenly the lighting director hits it with a bunch of amber light and – oops – orange blood. So we have to do pretty constant color correction with this stuff, "Guy said. "You have to consider the viscosity of the blood, the base colors of the materials you’re working with, what the color of the surface reads as and then lighting conditions. There’s a lot of chemistry involved."
(PHOTO: Matt Mueller)
Then, much like the show’s main characters, Guy has to think about clean-up. The scene, after all, takes place in the past before jumping forward in time – meaning the actors and the stage can’t show any sign of the splattery horror show that happened just a moment before, but several years back in their memory. Thankfully, the scene itself heavily involves wiping down the stage and the actors, but Guy still has to make sure the blood is easy to clean and doesn’t stain either clothes or skin.
"We need two pretty clean guys in a pretty clean room with some pretty clean tools at the end of (the scene)," Guy said. "I have been collaborating for months with the costume director and the costume designer on the fabric, because we cannot afford to replace somewhere between 20 to 40 towels per performance on a regular basis. So the wash-ability of the blood is a crucial factor, as well as the visual aspect."
So clearly there’s a lot more science to making a convincing pool of blood than simply pumping a few jugs of Hawaiian Punch onto a stage. Thankfully, Guy didn’t have to start from scratch, as there’s actually a "Guards at the Taj" "bible" that gets passed around from person to person in his official prop artist and manager organization.
"It has everything everybody has tried and what has worked and what hasn’t and why," Guy explained. "It’s a document probably about three-quarters of an inch thick now – and I’m going to be adding to it to pass on to the next people who do the show so that we don’t heave to reinvent the wheel."
And while Guy may be "the blood guy," he makes sure to pass around the credit for their plasma-filled project. "Everybody’s been working on this effect," he notes, from the technical director, to the lighting designer, to the costume designer, to the director and the actors in the spotlight.
As it turns out, it takes a whole lot of sweat, tears and – yes – blood to make a bloodbath. You could even say it’s all hands on deck.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.