Behind a closed door in one of the Art Academy of Cincinnati’s small square-shaped classrooms, Sara Knittel led a small audience of about 20 people on a raunchy, confrontational, occasionally hilarious and ultimately riveting journey through the “nasty squeezes” hidden inside her box in her one-woman show, Nightmare Fuel.
With only a black curtain for a backdrop and a large wooden chest as her lone prop, Knittel instantly grabbed the sporadically seated crowd’s attention with an awkward faux strip tease; she liberally explored the confined space for minutes, eliciting more uncomfortable laughter the longer it went on.
Soon after, she made direct eye contact with three audience members and asked them to reveal an innermost desire, or “nasty squeeze” from their teenage years. Unsurprisingly, less than 10 minutes into the performance, no one seemed particularly willing to proclaim or explore their “nasty squeezes” in front of a crowd.
Of course, Knittel has no such hang-ups and would soon open the wooden box in the center and plunge us into the world of her “nasty squeezes.”
Knittel knows how to provoke an audience; her stage presence evoked the charisma of an obnoxious schoolyard bully who had been blessed with impressive improv skills and a strong sense of mise-en-scène. There’s never a moment where she is not in total control of the room.
It is rarely clear what tangents and one-liners were previously prepared by Knittel and what she came up with on the spot, but she did all but force nearly everyone in the crowd to answer her questions — no matter how loaded — or perform in a series of skits in order to finally rid her of a demonic boyfriend.
An unfortunate downside to Nightmare Fuel's reliance on crowd work is that much of the time the audience’s experience was dependent on the performance of whomever Knittel randomly selects to interact with at any given moment.
It took a good 15-20 minutes for the crowd to warm up and get accustomed to Knittel’s almost bellicose approach to audience participation but it wound up providing some of the night's best laughs.
One man cleverly tried to perform his assigned task within seconds of walking onstage, inspiring the show-stopping quip, “Unfortunately you neglected to use the ceremonial sword, which I still have in my hand.”
Nightmare Fuel begins with Knittel opening her wooden chest to explore her own “nasty squeezes” and winds up taking the audience through an often uncomfortable — but constantly stimulating — experience that proves that even if exploring your fantasies proves disastrous, it’s worth it in the end for the lasting memories made along the way