The one thing Duluth theater needs to power up to the next level are original works. University of Minnesota Duluth contributes to that endeavor with the world premiere of “Maxa, the Maddest Woman in the World.” The new horror musical takes a bumpy road to a powerful payoff delivered by the two actresses playing the title role.

With book and lyrics by Mika Kauffman and music by Thomas Jacobsen, and co-directed by William Payne and Naomi Brecht, “Maxa” is inspired by the life of Paula Maxa. Ultimately, the creators are more interested in Paula, as a rape survivor, than in Maxa, the actress who died 10,000 times in myriad horrible ways at Paris’ Grand Guignol Theater.

The scenic design by Curtis Phillips and Sam Keran uses lights and projections to create a gorgeous crimson symphony of gothic shadows looming over a blood-soaked stage.

Act 1 has Laura Carlson’s Older Paula looking back on the life of Younger Paula (Mikayla Payne), who seems distracted by the future that she apparently wants (“Wicked”).

Her subsequent rape is briefly represented in silhouette, which calculatedly undercuts its devastating impact. The trauma is repressed/forgotten during the rest of the act as Younger Paula first takes over the stage and then the entire theater at the Grand Guignol.

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Act 2 becomes a psychological nightmare setting up Older Paula for “The Game,” where Maxa will “die for the last time." The biggest thing “Maxa” has going for besides its look is its cathartic climax delivered by Carlson and Payne in the emotionally wrenching “Despite It All.”

Jacobsen has pulse-pounding base lines in “The Maddest Woman in the World” and “No Limits, No Rules,” and Patrick Colvin’s band sounded great. But a lot of Kauffman’s lyrics were lost at crucial times because of sound issues. You are struck more by the moments their music creates for the characters and the story than the music itself.

There is a degree of disappointment about the level of gore at the Grand Guignol because after all the buildup about “The Strangest Showhouse in the World,” you want to see effects several cuts above the “Haunted Irvin.”

As Georges, Trevor Hendrix plays a pivotal role in the production of the jarring fast-forwarding to his relationship with Paula (“Lovely”). But in both “Georges’ Goodbye” and “I Never Told You,” Hendrix convinces us his love for her is real.

Maddie Schafer’s lilting voice is used to good effect as Paula’s Mother in “Let Me Hold You” and the “Finale.” Ben Knowlton’s histrionics as the mad doctor were spot on for a Grand Guignol performance, as was the intensity Kelly Solberg brought to “House of Pain.” Jake Mathey has fun as Camille the campy but creepy M.C. of the Grand Guignol.

Because it is a world premiere, the audience does not know when songs end so they can clap, like they should have at the end of Carlson’s poignant “Scream Into Silence.” Also, it is annoying there are so many students in the audience — presumably theater majors — incapable of seeing the characters because they insist on giggling at their classmates.

If you go

What: World premiere of “Maxa, The Maddest Woman in the World”

Where: Mainstage, Marshall Performing Arts Center, University of Minnesota Duluth

When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 14-16, 20-23 and 2 p.m. Oct. 17


Lawrance Bernabo is a theater and arts reviewer for the Duluth News Tribune.