Playing with Fire with Duel at Dusk Productions

One of the most impressive sights at Combat Con 2012 was the four-legged, 9-foot tall walker that graced the dance floor of the Time Traveller’s Ball. Called the Egress, the walker resembles one of the Land Striders from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. The Egress was just one of several spectacles that Duel at Dusk Productions put on at Combat Con. Based in Las Vegas, DADP has been literally burning up the Mojave in their quest to provide the ultimate over the top experiences to their audiences. The troupe has grown in the last two years, moving on to larger and larger projects and from September 27 to 29 in the California desert Duel at Dusk will be staging their most ambitious and intensive performances yet at the post-apocalptic Wasteland Weekend.

JP Dostal in Costume as Buddy from Six String Samurai

Duel at Dusk Productions Founder JP Dostal in His Buddy Costume from Six-String Samurai

Dueling at Dusk: What They Do and Have Done

Duel at Dusk began in Lansing, Michigan in 1999 where founder and director JP Dostal received his Master’s at Michigan State University. Dostal oversaw all of the Michigan Ren Faire’s six to eight week entertainment from 1999 to 2005. In its modern incarnation, Duel at Dusk Productions is the “Premier Company for Stage Combat Choreography & Over the Top Productions” in Las Vegas. While Dostal, who is only 32, works as the Food and Beverage Director for Trump International, most of his creative energy goes into stage combat with Dostal consulting on theatrical productions including recent work on the Las Vegas Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet which opens October 6 for a month-long run on the weekends. Dostal bills out such such work under the Duel at Dusk Productions moniker, but DADP is more of a theater company in its organization and operations, though that is changing as Duel at Dusk builds a reputation via unpaid events like Combat Con, Labyrinth of Jareth, and Wasteland Weekend. If nothing else, Dostal sees it as free marketing, while second-in-command Matt Sullins points out that DADP members would have gone to Wasteland Weekend and the Labyrinth of Jareth regardless of payment.

2012 Labyrinth of Jareth

Every year for the last 15 years, fans of Labyrinth gather in Southern California for the Labyrinth of Jareth, a costuming spectacle and masquerade put on by Sypher Art Studio. The members of Duel at Dusk Productions were initially going to the Labyrinth as a mini-vacation, but decided to up the ante with something they had already been planning for some time. They went to the steampunk ball the first evening, but on the second night they brought out the Egress walker. It was literally a big hit, barely squeezing through the entranceways. Manning the Egress was 135-pound Matt Sullins who adds a skill in stilt-walking to Duel at Dusk’s repertoire. Walking on all fours is hard work with Sullins needing ten minutes of rest for every fifteen spent moving around in the Egress. He also needs at least one handler and simply getting into the costume takes 15 minutes on its own. Sullins appearance as the Egress was so striking that Sasha Travis who plays the Queen of the Night addressed him in his costume, saying “Land Strider, it’s been so long since I’ve seen you; you’ve grown.” Dostal describes the costuming on the show’s Saturday night as “just the most elaborate and ridiculous thing” with many Hollywood costume designers creating some of them. While the Labyrinth of Jareth event has a storyline adhered to by its organizers, not every costumed guest has a character and even if one does, the attendee may not stay in character for the whole event. When DADP members went they stayed in character the whole time and possibly as a consequence Duel at Dusk Productions have been invited back for the 2013 Labyrinth of Jareth.

Cowboy hat wearing Wasteland Weekend character holds knife to throat of burlesque dancer Angel

Matt Sullins as Gentleman Johnny with Angel Spezza; Egress Costume is to the Right

The Egress, which is a play on PT Barnum’s mythical Egress, or exit, made its second appearance at the second Combat Con in Las Vegas at the Time Traveller’s Ball. The night before the DADP members put on a fiery show in the Tuscany Suites’ parking lot. When not entertaining at Combat Con, the cast members were attending the cosplay and gaming panels, as well as some of the combat classes and the tournaments. DADP has also made an appearance in an upcoming documentary on the life of Gregory Popovich, the Russian circus performer, whose dog and cat show is currently running at Planet Hollywood on the Las Vegas Strip. Duel at Dusk’s most recent public appearance leading into Wasteland Weekend also served as a public run through for some of their upcoming material when they performed at a charity event to raise money for Paws LV, helping to raise over $12,000.

The Nuclear Bombshells

Bare-chested Kevin Matthews poses with toy guns in booty shorts, a cast member of the burlesque troupe the Nuclear Bombshells

Male Nuclear Bombshell Kevin Matthews

Many of the female members of Duel at Dusk Productions also perform in a subgroup, the Nuclear Bombsells, a post-apocalyptic burlesque group headed by Yevette Shinn. For Shinn, 21 , burlesque is about women and men being tastefully “seductive and sexy”. Shinn finds it empowering, while post-apocalyptic burlesque to Shinn is simply “badass” in that she can wear chains, dismembered (fake) body parts, and “still make it look good.” Shinn collaborated with Matt Sullins two years ago on their idea for Nuclear Bombshells, performing their first stage show in 2010 at the gothic industrial club Muse owned by JP Dostal. Since then the Nuclear Bombshells have performed at bars, charity shows, and theaters. Shinn estimates that maybe only one out of five burlesque troupes have male dancers. For Shinn, including male dancers is based in a desire for equality, in giving equal treatment to the male body, for female (and male) fans. The Nuclear Bombshells currently boast two male dancers, one of whom, Kevin Matthews, will be stripping down out of his cowboy costume to his bandana, booty shorts, and gun holster at Wasteland Weekend. Matthews will also be twirling fire and says that he is new to burlesque dancing, admitting that he’s “not that good of a dancer,” but adding that he’s “a most excellent grinder.”

Girl in bunny costume and tights has tail checked by "Bunny" character for Wasteland Weekend

Costume Check: Nuclear Bombshells Becca and Yevette in Wasteland Weekend Wear

Wasteland Weekend Preparations

Preparations for Wasteland Weekend began when the Talent Director of Wasteland Weekend, Jared, contacted Duel at Dusk about participating. As he puts it, he “knew right away that this was a group that had a great feel for the whole post-apocalyptic theme we wanted to create. I was confident that their experience with live entertainment, and with fire combat in particular, would help us put on a great show.” The totally immersive event takes its inspiration from the Mad Max films with liberal doses of Fallout tossed in. The entire theme of Duel at Dusk’s camp however comes from the cult 90s film Six String Samurai which follows the katana-in-guitar wielding Buddy across the wasteland on his way to Vegas to become its new king after Elvis’ death, battling gangs and Death himself along the way. For the last four to five months, Duel at Dusk has been busy preparing for the event which is expected to draw 1,200 costumed attendees.

Flaming Hula Hoop Hoop of Death in Angel Spezza's Hands

Angel Spezza with Unlit Hoop of Death

Duel at Dusk Productions will be the only theatrical troupe entertaining every day at Wasteland Weekend; other performers from other groups and acts will be entertaining one or two of the days or evenings with more limited schedules. Wasteland wanderers can expect to encounter choreographed fights pitting Buddy against Death, a psychopathic Bowler, and a Wasteland Samurai with flaming butterfly swords, katanas, Sun and Moon Wheels, and and hook swords, all of which will be on fire. Wasteland Weekend also marks the return of Yevtte Shinn’s flaming whip. One new fiery attraction that DADP members are especially excited to introduce is the Hoop of Death, a flaming hula hoop which will be spun by cast member Angel Spezza, who will be dancing to Lita Ford’s “Playing with Fire”. Like many of their other flaming weapons, kevlar is used as the wick for the Coleman camping fuel on the Hoop of Death, which was ordered from the company Home of Poi in New Zealand and only arrived September 12. What’s it like to stand inside a flaming ring, besides hot? Angel says, “It’s like you’re inside a fire tornado, there’s a lot of noise, and you can’t see past it.” The danger and thrills continue with the Sword Staircase, also to be performed by Angel, incorporating Lion-O’s sword from Thunder Cats, the Eye of Thunderra, as well as several mundane blades and a Klingon batliff blade. Michigan DADP cast members Jay Davis and Matthew Highley will play as the Loverly Brothers, a post-apoc vaudeville act a la Charlie Chaplin in a series of three pieces during Duel at Dusk’s Saturday main stage performance all concerning interactions in Bartertown.

DADP has also partnered with Hollywood prop master David Baker and will be putting on shows inside his Dark and Dagger Circus at the End of the World area. Wasteland Weekend is split into “tribes” or encampments (as is typical for Ren Faires). In the Circus at the End of the World DADP cast member Edward Tyndall will be performing a psychic surgery and Matt Sullins will be doing a strait jacket escape. Duel at Dusk Productions’ and the Nuclear Bombshells’ entire presence at Wasteland Weekend will be as the Fabulous Lost Vegas tribe and much planning and detail has gone into the construction of the encampment which will adjoin a functioning casino run by a different tribe. Initially Dostal had planned on providing several children’s pools to allow Wasteland Weekenders to cool off during the day as part of the Fabulous Lost Vegas day club, but the exact specifics have been evolving over the last month.

Bandana wearing Raven working on a tent in preparation for Wasteland Weekend

DADP Builder Lee “Raven” Buckley Working on Wasteland Weekend Tent

Not all of Duel at Dusk’s offerings will be seen on Wasteland Weekend’s stage or at the Circus at the End of the World, as DADP cast members will be wandering throughout the three full days performing and entertaining as their characters. For instance, Dostal’s girlfriend and DADP costumer Maggie Reese will play as Catherine Pratt, the Martha Stewart of the Apocalypse, dressed in pink burlap. Edward Tyndall will be wandering the tents as the darkly comedic Mr. Cross with his golf bag of torturous implements (which will probably be equally matched by torturous punchlines). Aiding him will be his caddy Max Gardener played by DADP script writer Nick Scalzo. Matt Sullins will be out of the Egress costume and MCing most of DADP’s stage shows, but also wandering as Gentleman Johnny with his hunting dog “Bunny” played by Yevette Shinn. Kevin Matthews will be the Cowboy, offering tours of the Fabulous Lost Vegas camp besides his burlesque run on Saturday night. Many of the Nuclear Bombshells will also be serving as cocktail waitresses at the adjoining casino throughout Wasteland Weekend, including Vera Rayner who will be playing Little Red Riding Hood in her burlesque number. Rayner will also be serving up her blood as Edward Tyndall’s psychic surgery patient.

Matt Sullins in costume as Gentleman Johnny with Cowboy hat while Fur Wearing Bunny Yevette Shinn waits behind

Wasteland Weekenders Gentleman Johnny with His “Bunny”: Matt Sullins and Yevette Shin

One Nuclear Bombshell performance will be Olivia Rose’s self-bondage routine, where she will tie herself onto a spit and be carted offstage, blending elements of the bondage and post-apocalptic cannibalism. Like the other DADP cast members, this will be Rose’s first year at Wasteland Weekend, but she’s no stranger to Burning Man in northern Nevada, where she runs Spanky’s Wine Bar. In her fifth year of attendance at Burning Man, Rose’s “village” or camp numbers 200 there, out of 52,000 festival goers. She’s also used to Burning Man’s epic fourteen day runs held over Labor Day weekends, so Wasteland Weekend will be easy by comparison.

The Importance of Safety

Vicious bladed implements and weapons on a garage wall at Duel at Dusk Productions

Just a Tiny Fraction of the Deadly Weapons DADP Has

Besides taking his opponent’s blade to his chin, Dostal has other firsthand experience with the dangers of stage and sport combat. In a Michigan production of “Peter Pan” Dostal served as the fight director, but had to leave town during rehearsal and suspended practices. The play’s director had other ideas though and that’s when one of the actors lost his eye, his fellow actor’s foil taking it out with a mistimed thrust. The one-eyed actor now has a glass eye and sued the director, but it’s such mishaps that Dostal seeks to avoid. Dostal himself has skewered his opponent’s shoulder while fencing when his blade broke; his opponent looked down because of the pain, but only passed out when he saw the blood because he was a hemophobe. Dostal’s garage, where much of the preparation for events like Wasteland Weekend has gone on, is festooned with weapons of all makes and sizes with most of them being very sharp and not modified for stage combat. While I never witnessed any explicit instruction to be safe when handling weapons, most cast members simply do not pick up or even swing unfamiliar weapons and they all seem to have a respect for the lethality of their surroundings.

Wasteland Medic Crow Wielding Gardening Tool

Wasteland Medic and Real Life Firefighter Crow

This also extends into fire safety. Cast members seem to stick to their own flaming weapons, but when it comes to fire, Dostal has been much more explicit and obvious in his preparations. Like the rest of the kevlar-based fire weapons, Angel Spezza’s Hoop of Death was soaked in Coleman cooking fuel and then burnt off; the first burn removes chemicals used to process it and fuzz from manufacturing the kevlar and usually lasts longer than subsequent burns, which will tend to be more consistent. When it came time for Angel to actually step into the ring though for an actual run through all joking died down and specific instructions on who would or would not be moving in to help her were given. Fire blankets were prepared with the hula hoop posing the additional problem of possibly endangering Angel were she to try to jump over it assuming she were lit on fire. Everything went off without a hitch though, but it all came through careful planning. The real key to DADP’s fire safety is paying attention to the fibers in clothing with synthetic fibers posing the hazard of melting when ablaze. It is not uncommon at DADP practices for a cast member to show a new costume piece and quickly explain what fabric is involved, even if the cast member will not be performing with fire. Dostal also has some help in the form of cast member Crow who brings real world firefighting skills as a Fire Protection Journeyman in the Air Force and as a student of Fire Science. Crow serves as DADP’s medic and was set to play a Wasteland Medic at Wasteland Weekend until his request for leave to attend the event was denied.

And the Importance of Fun and Games

Multicolored Sarina Gast giving the thumbs up with spray paint in hand

Occasional M:TG Player Sarina Gast

Duel at Dusk Productions members also know the importance of having a good time and besides general interests in costuming, comics, science fiction, and fantasy, most members are also gamers. Whip-wielder Yvette Shinn plays both pen and paper RPGs as well as regularly participating in SCA-style guilds and events, even heading her own breakaway “house” focusing on torture. Her aunt introduced her to Ren Faires when she was 5 years old, promising Shinn that one day she could be her squire. She joined when she was 12 and picked up a sword, switching over to a whip at the the request of her guild’s queen to serve as her Torture Mistress. Shinn has even taught Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops about medieval torture and has based one of her Wasteland Weekend characters off of her role-playing game character, Safety Pin, a faceless assassin-tank from Apocalypse World. Her boyfriend Matt Sullins is also no stranger to putting on a costume and swinging a blade, but usually played theater-style LARPs on the East Coast at conventions like MarCon and the now defunct Psi-Con in Connecticut, besides playing in a number of White Wolf World of Darkness LARPs. Sullins played Apocalypse Worlds in person at a Vegas Game Day, but usually plays online in a wiki-based game. While cast member Joshua “Crow” Dietrich is an avid Halo fan and working to finish his own $600 Spartan Suit, he also dabbled as a teenager in Dragonlance, using his father’s own rule set, as well as playing standard Dungeons & Dragons and participating in forum-based online RPGs. DADP Set Builder Lee “Raven” Buckley is an avid player of both tabletop and video game RPGs, pointing to Call of Cthulu and D&D 3.5 as his favorite RPGs. He also LARPed throughout his teenage years in New Hampshire playing Realms, where he developed an assassin character.

Vera Rayner Out of Her Little Red Riding Hood Costume

Ren Faire Fan Vera Rayner

Kevin Matthews, who will be playing the Cowboy and burlesque dancing at Wasteland Weekend, also played Dungeons & Dragons in high school, but never was a “fanatic”. He is a World War II buff though and a fan of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, though he is not a wargamer at all. Vera Rayner on the other hand has never played tabletop games, but does play Guild Wars and Forsaken World on the PC. As a teenager Rayner LARPed in a Vampire: The Masquerade game and she also regularly participates in Ren Faires. At 18, Sarina Gast is both the youngest member of DADP and also the newest. A huge Zelda fan, she also used to play Magic: The Gathering and had a mean zombie deck. Her real passion though is fine art, but she intends to study graphic design in college. Angel Spezza is a Star Wars fan and a D&D player, but spends most of role-playing energy playing a Twi’lek Sith in a Star Wars Facebook RPG. Angel actually met her boyfriend and fellow cast member Crow on the Facebook role-play, moving out to Las Vegas after she fell in love with the man in the Mandalorian armor and eventually joined Duel at Dusk as well. While Crow uses pictures of himself in his Mandalorian armor for his Facebook character’s avatar, Angel prefers to draw her own character. As for DADP founder JP Dostal himself, he played sorcerors in his D&D games in college, already having his fill of melee combat in real life. When he taught fencing in Lansing many of his students were LARPers in Kanar (Knights, Nobles, Rogues), and was convinced to join his students in their quests and schemes, but has not LARPed since. Dostal and Sullins are in the process of setting up their own Duel at Dusk Productions game knight, in addition to their many other plans.

Blazing Forward with Duel at Dusk

Furry Bunny Yevette Shinn with Gas Mask for Wasteland Weekend

Corpser Yevette Shinn in Her “Bunny” Costume

JP Dostal and Company are already at work on other plans for after Wasteland Weekend with the 2013 Labyrinth of Jareth looming large as well as other events which are more pressing, such as a possible show in Las Vegas in December featuring many of the acts from Wasteland Weekend. For the next Labyrinth of Jareth, Duel at Dusk will be comprising the Court of Purgatory for the Queen of the Night. When the real world Shawn Strider and Sasha Travis got engaged and they brought their character counterparts together for Labyrinth of Jericho a rift developed with the Queen of the Night’s followers unhappy with the move, splitting off to form their own court. Without a court of her own, the Queen of the Night turned to Duel at Dusk Productions and now will boast some very elaborate protection to rival the Goblin Court, her Fey Court, and Lord Strider’s own court. Fight scenes will be choreographed between the rival courts and JP Dostal expects several trips to Los Angeles beforehand to fully prepare for the intricate action that will greet the Labyrinth’s visitors next June. In all JP Dostal estimates that DADP will be spending three to four months on their Court of Purgatory with costumes like the Skeleton Corpsers returning, as well as many new characters and costumes including Egress 2.0, a gigantic Hellhound, the Lord of Purgatory, Lady Purgatory, and a very special rolling surprise.

Another project that Dostal has been pursuing and developing for some time is with the City of Henderson, which is to the immediate southeast of Las Vegas. Southern Nevada will be getting a new Renaissance Faire in the Henderson Pavilion venue. Dostal has developed a format that includes an evening play during the Ren Faire’s run with DADP script writer Nick Scalzo about 70% done with his own original Robin Hood script which, while humorous, will tend towards the 1990 Kevin Costner end of things and not so much Robin Hood Men in Tights. Dostal cites the recent loss of 30,000 Ren Faire attendees at the Las Vegas Renaissance Faire due in part to a relocation of the outdoor venue as one of contributing factors leading towards the Henderson Renaissance Festival. Another reason for the new Ren Fair according to Dostal, is that the Las Vegas Ren Fair is not historically accurate, encompassing Roman legionaries to pirates in costumes from the 1600s. Coming from Michigan and Maryland, Dostal and Sullins are also used to much longer 6-8 week Ren Faires, unlike Las Vegas’s 3-day span. Current plans for the Henderson Ren Fair are for a three weekend run possibly as early as March/April 2013.

As for Las Vegas itself, Dostal has been developing an interactive theater project for the Las Vegas Strip and shopping it around to the casinos. Because the choreographed show is still in development there’s not much he can announce about it at present. He can say a bit more though about his efforts in producing a sequel to Six String Samurai and has been pursuing the rights from the movie’s creator Lance Mungia. Dostal plans to make use of some of the existing props and costumes developed for Wasteland Weekend and to film in Rhyolite, Nevada which is where the original film was recorded.

Shirtless and tan male burlesque dancer Kevin Matthews with pistol and fire on asphalt behind him

Kevin Matthews Giving a Taste of Wasteland Weekend’s Saturday Evening Entertainment

To get involved with Duel at Dusk Productions, Matt Sullins suggests contacting the group via their website and points out that, “It doesn’t matter if you have a skill set, if it’s something that you really, really want to do, we’ll find something we can train you to do.”