In an early scene of “Maxa, The Maddest Woman in the World,” the contemplative title character, dressed in a long flowy robe, studies the handgun taken from the drawer of her backstage bureau.
She’s interrupted by a knock at the door and a five-minute warning.
Paula Maxa, this version played by Laura Carlson, puts the gun away and directs her attention to a record player. She cues up a nostalgic tune that sets the scene for a new horror musical that shows the life of the relatively unknown actress — first as a child and young adult and later as the woman who referred to herself as “the most murdered woman in the world” for her work at Paris’ infamous Grand Guignol theater.
“This is the original ‘Scream Queen,’” said Thomas Jacobsen, an assistant professor of musical theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth and co-writer of the original musical alongside Mika Kauffman.
“Maxa, The Maddest Woman in the World,” gets its world premiere in a production by the university’s theater department, directed by William Payne and senior Naomi Brecht, that plays Oct. 14-23 on the mainstage of the Marshall Performing Arts Center. It’s a new work — so new that it continued to change shape since it landed on UMD’s season schedule, originally planned for November 2020.
It is not advised for children under 16.
The Grand Guignol theater, in an old chapel and off the beaten path, opened in 1897 with a premise of putting real life on stage and then ultimately segued into violence and horror.
This past summer, the BBC posted a story about the theater’s history of horror: “clever staging techniques for realistically suggesting gouged eyeballs and spurting blood, and plots drawn from newspaper reports of real-life crime and depravity, the Grand Guignol was where queasy realism met gaudy melodrama.”
Not much is written about the theater’s star, Paula Maxa, who has also been fictionalized in the 2018 Netflix movie “The Most Assassinated Woman in the World.” She wrote about herself for a 1938 piece in “True” magazine — but decades later journalist April Snellings, in an article for crimereads.com, countered that Maxa might have been encouraged to exaggerate.
Maxa was, however, born in the late 1800s to parents who were religious and fared well financially. In a scene that plays out as a memory in the musical, Maxa was raped and stabbed by a boyfriend when she was a teenager.
She joined the infamous theater in 1917 — Jacobsen’s theory is that she needed something opposite of her upbringing — and became a fan-favorite.
“Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, she died so many times on stage … that she was known as ‘the most murdered woman in the world,’” according to Snellings’ article. “In one estimation, she suffered as many as 10,000 grisly deaths during her tenure at the theater. She was stabbed, shot, hanged, poisoned, strangled, guillotined and steamrolled; she was stung by scorpions, kissed by lepers, eaten by pumas and diced into 83 pieces.”
In an autobiographical piece by Maxa, she writes that as a victim of sexual assault, she finds catharsis in performing this material.
“When we found that,” Jacobsen said, “We realized there is a very important story here that could be cathartic and helpful.”
Jacobsen is a self-described “huge horror fan” who first encountered Paula Maxa in an episode of “Penny Dreadful” that featured the Grand Guignol. It sparked an idea for a musical — which he pitched to Kauffman.
“They were completely on board with it,” he said. “We started researching and writing it.”
When UMD’s theater heads considered the schedule for the 2020-21 school year, Jacobsen presented the idea of staging the new musical.
“These students are very good,” he said. “They could handle the process of a new musical. We’re making changes on the fly, getting new pages. … This is something that could set our department apart for prospective students.”
William Payne backed it and said he would direct it. Before UMD, he spent a lot of time working with writers on new scripts — which requires a different kind of directing, one he described as “the experience of sand shifting under your feet.”
The students didn’t stage “Maxa” in 2020 because of COVID-19 and in the past year the musical has been workshopped and tweaked. Rehearsals started in late August and as of about a week ago, it is at rest, structurally, as is for now.
Publicity for the musical comes with a content advisory because of the graphic depictions of violence and gore and detailed discussion of rape and suicide. “This piece was written with extreme care by a survivor,” it says in the show’s media release. It doesn’t stop with the warning: Payne said there will be PAVSA-trained individuals at each show, in private rooms, to meet with members of the audience who need a space to talk or sort through what they’ve seen. There will also be educational materials about mental health in the lobby.
More and more, Payne said he is seeing the mental health crisis right in front of him — students facing anxiety and depression.
“To not talk about what’s happening is irresponsible,” he said. “But to talk about it, because it does trigger some people to tell the story of Paula Maxa, you have to responsibly help your community to go there.”
Meanwhile, precautions have been taken with student-performers. A speech by a young Paula Maxa, played by Mikayla Payne, outlines exactly what Maxa has gone through — attacked, raped, beaten — but it isn’t performed during every rehearsal. And the actors and crew are performing rituals as a way of ensuring they leave the weight of the story at the theater.
This is the last show Payne will direct at UMD, and he said he is glad to go out with this one — where he is collaborating with this specific group.
“To see the courage of this young cast, some of whom are suffering themselves,” he said. “They see the necessity for the story to be told.”
What: University of Minnesota Duluth's "Maxa, The Maddest Woman in the World"
Creative team: Book and lyrics by Mika Kauffman and Thomas Jacobsen, directed by William Payne and Naomi Brecht, music director Patrick Colvin and choreographer Rebecca Katz Harwood
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14-16, Oct. 20-23 and 2 p.m. Oct. 17
Where: Mainstage, Marshall Performing Arts Center