Intriguing take on “infection horror” genre that ‘takes no prisoners’
|Strawdog Theatre Company presents|
Review by Clint May
Reading the definition of ‘meme,’ it sounds a lot like a virus. It spreads, needs new hosts, takes over entire populations, etc. That concept—of a word or words that can infect a population–takes a horrific turn for a fictional suburb that lends its name, Pontypool. It’s somewhat relatable. If I see another Gangnam Style video parody, I too might turn into a raving lunatic hellbent on destruction. As the presidential debates dominate the news cycles, we are again reminded of the tedium of the meme of ‘sound bites’—those oft parroted reality spinners that turn pundits into mindless zombies hoping to infect a populace. As adapted by the original author Tony Burgess, Pontypool wonders what happens if the sound bites back.
Fallen from big-market graces, morning DJ Grant Mazzy (Jamie Vann), finds himself exiled to Pontypool, Illinois. The biggest news here is a missing cat named Honey. Mazzy wants more. Piss off listeners, bring in a little Norman Mailer (which sets the tone of paranoia nicely), defy the producer (Elizabeth Dowling), and above all—take no prisoners. On a sleepy Valentine’s Day show, Sunshine Chopper Ken (voice of Michael Dailey) calls in a strange occurrence at the offices of Dr. Mendez (Carmine Grisolia): hundreds of people have gathered for unknown reasons when an explosion incites a riot. Holed up in their underground broadcast bunker, they wonder if it could all be a reverse War of the World’s broadcast. When the phones can’t stop ringing, it becomes clear that something strange is happening. With no official story, they can only report. The appearance of a shelter-seeking Dr. Mendez shines some light on the going-ons. When technical director Laurel Ann (Nikki Klix, played by Morgan Gire on the night I viewed) succumbs to the mysterious symptoms overtaking the populace, the three remaining can only retreat to the sound booth and watch and wonder in increasing horror. Intermittent calls from Ken give chilling reports of the outside world. Spiraling out of control, the mystery only grows as reality itself seems to twist apart.
It’s a chilling reverse of the old adage “show don’t tell”—by mostly telling and not showing, our imaginations can fill in more horribly than average stagecraft can produce. Hugen Hall’s production—overseen by first time Strawdog director Anderson Lawfer— suffers mostly in the pacing. Sixty minutes is a good time limit on ‘novelty’ productions, but this could use a bit more breathing room for a more tense turning of the screw. If only those frequent black outs would quit interrupting the flow as if it needs commercial breaks. There’s some nice dark humor (Muzak always adds a sinister flavor to horror), and Vann certainly has the right voice and look for a radio personality. Grisolia needs to slow up a bit and dampen the affected accent to make his insights more comprehensible, while his sight-lines for the set need a more well-thought balance to ensure that the single-level of seating all get a good view. Thanks to Netflix, you can watch the 2008 movie, which currently holds a more-than-respectable 83% at rottentomatoes.com. Perhaps because of this, the ending has been drastically changed to allow the theatre to encourage fans of the cult classic to revisit this sleepy hamlet.
Burgess’ concept has the same sort of sci/fi-horror social commentary subtly threaded in as George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, which mocked consumerist culture to famed effect. Pontypool is a potentially chilling illustration of the dangers of repetition without critical thought as a means of enslavement. It’s closer to home than you may think. We’ve all had snippets of songs stuck in our heads, and it’s a little disturbing that scientists call this brain infestation ‘ear worms’ that can occasionally require treatment to subdue. This is a thinking man’s suspense thriller that has a lot of potential, and this production feels one treatment away from being a new suspense classic for the Halloween season. Setting characters in a claustrophobic place is a great trope for ratcheting up the drama. Just don’t do the same to the story.
Pontypool continues through November 4th at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays 11pm, Sundays 8pm. Tickets are $15, and are available by phone (866-811-4111) or online through OvationTix.com. More info at Strawdog.org. (Running time: 60 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Tom McGrath
behind the scenes
Anderson Lawfer (director); Morgan Gire (stage manager); Jordan Kardasz (lighting); Gregor Mortis (sound); Aly Renee Amidei (costumes); Paige Reilly (props), Carmine Grisolia (set); Josh Sobel (dramaturgy); John Moran (combat); Tom McGrath (photos)