Mary McCool’s ‘Stress Exorcist’ at Helium is scary funny

Mary McCool Stress Exorcist Helium
Mary McCool’s one-man show, ‘Stress Exorcist,’ hits the stage at Helium on Wednesday.
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Anyone who loves adventurous, experimental theater, loves Mary McCool.

Along with being a cofounder of New Paradise Laboratories and a longtime part of Pig Iron Theatre Company, McCool’s work in avant-garde theatre includes early development work on 2017’s Tony winner for Best New Play, ‘Oslo’, and the Wilma’s English language premiere of Vaclav Havel’s ‘Leaving’.

Now she is bringing her solo work – and the winner of the Fringies Award for Best Comedy in the 2022 Philly Fringe Festival – ‘Stress Exorcist’ to Helium Comedy Club on Jan. 4.

A chaotic solo piece written and performed by McCool, developed with Jack Tamburri and welcoming opening comic Rose Luardo and host Josh Machiz, ‘Stress Exorcist’ promises to be “an hypnotic, hilarious adventure in shadow self-care performed in monster drag” with its wealth of interactive crowd work.

What’s not to love?

McCool began developing her “anonymous, monster-drag spectacle” in 2019 for her This Info Will Change Your Life cabaret piece. When Tamburri – a Philly/NYC theater director – witnessed an early iteration of McCool’s dark and nebulous creature, the two quickly discussed working together.

“I felt as if I’d made a friend,” said Tamburri about meeting McCool.

Or was he talking about meeting McCool’s monster?

“I think of this as my monster-drag character, a shrouded, faceless unidentifiable, large, lumpy creation,” says McCool. “I use vocal distortion effects to keep my voice deep and low, and the show itself mysteriously plays with dualities – between horror and comedy the narcissistic dualities between confidence and lofty aspiration, and somewhere in the middle where I’m just falling apart and being an insecure mess.”

And to be sure, McCool’s brand of monster-drag is both horrendous and ridiculous at the same time. Some audience members might think of her ‘Stress Exorcist’ as the Grim Reaper, but McCool thinks of it as more ambiguous in both gender an purpose.

“It is a blank canvas for the audience,” says McCool. “And it is pretty monstrous.”

To all of the dynamics of the demonic, McCool has added a dimension of loving intentions and sensitive self-care.

“The character wants to be a guru, and wants to do what theater is supposed to do: transport people and help them connect to each other, to be better versions of themselves.”

The comedy in ‘Stress Exorcist’ comes in the shambling creature’s bumbling nature, one that makes fun of its desire to crowd-please while honoring said hope.

“The duality that thrilled me as a director is that I am obsessed with actors,” said Tamburri. “I want to know as much as I can about them so that I can help them do what they do, best platform them and create the most direct channel between actor and audience. This character, like most actors, has a profound god-like power and immense neediness. And self-consciousness. And narcissism. This character is a god and a clown shifting back-and-forth between polarities.”

As for how a theatrical monster winds up on the comedy stage of Helium on Sansom Street, McCool says she wanted to bring ‘Stress Exorcist’ to the larger comic masses.

“This is for the people as it straddles genres. This is an experiment, to see if this piece – one with its heart in theater, but its head in comedy – works on a broader stage. This is a show to make people laugh,” says McCool.

Plus, there are lessons to be learned.

“Tend to your dark unexplored side” says Tamburri. “If you don’t take care of it, it grows into a monster.”

‘Stress Exorcist’ hits the stage at Helium Comedy Club on Wednesday, Jan. 4, at 8 p.m. For information and tickets, visit philadelphia.heliumcomedy.com

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