WASHINGTON, December 7, 2012 – The buzz coming out from theater company dog & pony dc hinted that their latest production, A Killing Game, might be something completely different. It was. And is. Trust us. We caught the show in the performance area of DC’s Capitol Hill Arts Workshop last week, and we’re still trying to figure out if we’re dead or alive—though in all likelihood, most thespians probably wish that most critics were sleeping with the fishes.
We’ve only caught a couple of this small company’s productions in recent years, but dog & pony’s general premise seems to be that theater’s fourth wall is made to be broken down when it comes to communicating and sharing ideas. At least that’s one of the operating principles behind “A Killing Game.” d&p’s current production was inspired by Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco’s short drama, Jeu de Massacre. Roughly translated, the title could mean something like “a game of slaughter” or “wholesale slaughter,” but it generally goes by Killing Game in English and so it does here.
Ionesco’s original (1970-71) drama was one of his later and less well-known efforts, a wildly absurdist panorama of everyday people who suddenly start to die off in huge numbers from some unknown malady. Perhaps Ionesco’s answer to Albert Camus’ more serious novel The Plague (1947), Ionesco’s play is nonetheless a decidedly different attempt to describe how a sudden and incomprehensible disaster might transform a populace that’s wholly unprepared for it.
According to one wit, Ionesco’s play likely holds the “theatrical record for deaths on stage,” as every member in the cast gets at least one death scene. The widespread gruesomeness of it all becomes so overdone that it starts to get funny—one of the usual reactions to theater of the absurd, or its bastard child, black comedy.
But, as always, Ionesco is lightly concealing his exploration of a key Marxist tenet; namely, the reality of individual and societal alienation. In this case, alienation is exemplified by the initial disbelief and the succeeding and wildly alternating theories and blame games that ripple across any society that’s suddenly terrified by an existential threat to its existence. Each affected populace in Ionesco’s play is suddenly cut loose from its societal moorings, its certain certainties. Panicked, these communities flop about looking for answers or explanations before all their members succumb as well.
Analogous contemporary events range from Pol Pot’s “killing fields” to AIDS, the recent Japanese tsunami and nuclear meltdown, to U.S. natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. So Ionesco’s examination of such events—probably inspired by memories of the Second World War—are still not far-fetched, as mass-death and its fallout are always possible at any time. Which, at least in part, is likely what inspired dog & pony’s collective in the first place.
Led by director Colin K. Bills, d&p’s creative team has modernized Ionesco’s original but made it their own, sticking with the key premise of the play but re-crafting from it a new, updated Killing Game that reflects the approach, viewpoint, and outlook of today’s younger generations.
A Killing Game reflects a sense and sensibility that will appeal most strongly to twenty- and thirty-somethings whose current groupthink, cultural icons, and job prospects compel them to communicate—often promiscuously—their communal and/or generational enthusiasms, beliefs, and fears via iPhones and/or social networking. d&p’s current offering draws its audience right into the action of the play in the hope that what’s being experienced by the onstage community will become part of the shared experience of the audience as well.
(Semi-spoiler alert: We’ll describe next, in a fairly loose way, what happens in the play without giving away too much. Reason? Should you decide to call for tickets, knowing too much ahead of time might spoil the spontaneity and the effect.)
As the audience is seated for this production, surrounding the black box stage area on three sides, each patron is given an envelope of largish playing cards containing a set of general instructions. Each card has instructions or requests that pertain to an individual scene, each of which comes to an end on a given signal—at which point audience members move on to the next scene of this play, which is presented without an intermission. Some of these instructions are specific, some are suggestive.
(But note: the company makes it clear that no one is actually required to participate, creating a welcome safe-zone for those generally uncomfortable with participatory theater.)
An extra-added attraction: for once, audience members are not only encouraged to bring their smartphones or smart devices to this play. They’re encouraged to keep their devices turned on throughout the performance, as live social networking of the unfolding action can and does contribute another level of participation and meaning to the experience.
As your friendly, cheapskate critic remains a holdout in this quadrant of the communications universe, however, he can’t comment with any authority on just what was happening in the Twitterverse as the events of the play unfolded. (However, at least a quarter of last Saturday’s audience likely experienced the effects of severe finger fatigue later in the evening.)
Similar to Ionesco’s play, d&p’s “Killing Game” opens with an absurdly idealized scene in which impossibly content and untroubled townspeople go about their daily lives with nary an inkling that something momentous or catastrophic might happen at any moment. But happen it does, as mass death begins to strike every one of them down. In various ways, the same pattern is repeated in scene after scene. Each of the characters then morphs into a new one in successive scenes. Rinse and repeat.
If it sounds boring, it isn’t. Each iteration of mass death has its own special flavor, as each succeeding bunch of the doomed acquires key bits of information from reports of the last. As the play nears its frantic concluding moments, the entire theater, audience included, begins to respond to the rolling plague as if it were a sinister but hilarious reprise of an old TV game show like “The Price Is Right.” It’s at this point that an entirely new element is added to the mix, leading to a surprising final blackout.
One either likes this kind of audience participation play or one doesn’t. This Boomer critic still tends to prefer that theater’s fourth wall remain firmly in place at least most of the time. That said, in this business one can’t afford to become fossilized. Last Saturday’s predominantly younger audience, iDevices and Android phones in hand, seemed primed to get involved from the outset. For the most part, they enthusiastically jumped into every scene to enlarge and amplify the size and scope of each succeeding wave of meaningless death.
It was as if all those random social networking electrons flying about were able to acquire real identities. It’s a polar reversal of what transpires in the “Tron” films where human characters end up actually inhabiting the micro-circuitry. In this case, “reality” is projected outward rather than inward, even though self-examination is probably this production’s ultimate goal.
Doing a play like this requires not only the rote memorization of lines and scenes but also an ability to ad lib mostly on topic, as each new audience will react in uniquely individual and collective ways. That’s a tough routine for actors to follow. But in the main, d&p’s youngish cast did well, rarely tongue-tied and always game to tackle the evolving situation.
Since each cast member becomes someone new after his or her current character heads on to St. Peter’s Gate, each player is designated by a specific color in the program. So a hat tip to the courage and madcap energy radiated by named cast members Blue (Jon Reynolds), Pink (Yasmin Tuazon), Orange (J. Argyl Plath), Purple (Jessica Lefkow), Green (Genna Davidson), Brown (Sean Paul Ellis), and Black (i.e., Death portrayed in alternating performances by Rachel Grossman or Rebecca Sheir).
We won’t give “Killing Game” a specific rating as it doesn’t really seem appropriate for a play that, almost by definition, depends on the reaction and participation of a given audience on a given night.
If you’re the kind of theater goer who likes to get involved in the action and perhaps even dive onto the stage instead of off, and/or if you believe that the entire first half of the 21st century is fast becoming entirely devoid of meaning (which notion, at this point, we’d be loath to rebut), this is probably the play for you, as well as a great date night for couples who like to joust about the meaning of life over a skinny latté or an adult beverage après theatre.
If, on the other hand, you’re a bit more into structure, depth of character, and clear, discernable meaning; if you’re over 45 or 50; or if you wish that Ike were still in the White House (just kidding), you might wish to pass, as d&p’s Killing Game is not in any remote way a conventional night out at the theater.
In any event, it’s your choice: forearmed or forewarned. But if you’re curious, you might want to take a chance. An unexamined life can be boring indeed.
(For tickets and information: Visit dog & pony’s website here.)
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
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