Monday, August 3, 2015

Terror With A Twist

The Ancient Greeks had a winning formula. During performances of their tragedies, acts of excessive violence and gore had to take place offstage and out of the audience's sight. Later, the actors would describe events too horrible to imagine.

How does one describe a gruesome cyclops or monsters devouring helpless sailors? One might start with the words "Oh horror, horror, horror!" After all, when push comes to shove it's all about telling a story, spinning a yarn, capturing an audience's attention and keeping them hooked on a narrative.

As new technologies have helped filmmakers concoct ever more ingenious special effects, audiences have progressed way beyond the kludgy kind of stop-motion animation used in 1925's The Lost World, 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and 1955's It Came From Beneath The Sea.

No more can filmmakers rely on the man-in-a-rubber-suit device (1954's Godzilla and Creature from the Black Lagoon). Steady advances in CGI technology allow today's filmmakers to go for increasingly ridiculous scripts. Two classic examples of such wretched excess are 2009's Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus and 2014's version of Godzilla.

At some point, however, an audience is going to want more than just cheap visual gags. They're going to want suspense, terror, and masterful storytelling. In 2006, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho  delivered all three, giving audiences the thrills they had craved with The Host.

How does one tell a contemporary horror story if one's audience can't see the monster? What if the audience is gathered in a 50-seat theatre with no possibility of elaborate scenic effects? How does a playwright scare the shit out of them?

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A recent headline that grabbed the attention of Bay area readers stated that the Military Once Used SF Fog For Simulated Germ-Warfare Attack, Exposing 800,000 To Harmful Bacteria. In his book, Clouds of Secrecy, Leonard A. Cole (Director of the Terror Medicine and Security Program at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School) described the trials as using "harmless bacteria" while admitting that it was one of the largest human experiments ever conducted.

According to reports, during the 1950s the United States Armed Forces used San Francisco's coastal fog belt as "a means of masking the spread of a biological agent in simulated germ-warfare attacks. Nearly all of San Francisco received 500 particle minutes per liter. In other words, nearly every one of the 800,000 people in San Francisco exposed to the cloud at normal breathing rate (10 liters per minute) inhaled 5,000 or more particles per minute during the several hours that they remained airborne."

One's awareness of these tests adds an extra wallop of verisimilitude to a provocative new play, I Saw It, which was recently staged by Wily West Productions at the EXIT Studio. With Jennifer Lynne Roberts acting as head writer, most of the hard-hitting monologues/soliloquies in this 75-minute drama were written by Laylah Muran de Assereto. Tensely directed by Ariel Craft, I Saw It featured a Greek chorus of frantic Bay area Twitterati posting hysterical tweets that include pleas for help and such panicky messages as "#End of Days"

Samantha Behr is Isla in I Saw It (Photo by: Colin Hussey)
  • Isla (Samantha Behr) is the woman who claims to have first seen and reported "it." In a moment of visceral panic mixed with a surprising amount of lucidity, Isla bravely thrust her hand inside "it." Her action transferred "its" strength to herself while draining the [supposed] monster of its fearsome potential.
  • Van Clarkson (Richard Wenzel) is Isla's estranged father, a harried man who works as a local television reporter. With old-fashioned "on the spot reporting" having been reduced to reading selective messages off of a Twitter feed, there really is no way for Van to check his sources or verify the information he is receiving.
Colleen Egan is Nola in I Saw It (Photo by: Colin Hussey)
  • Nola (Colleen Egan) is an extremely unhappy woman with a limp who hates her biological parents, loathes her stepfather, and is very protective of her kid brother, Bobby (Kyle McReddie). In a perverse way, the bitter Nola thrives on the fear and terror felt by others who have encountered "it" while magically seeming to draw strength from "its" presence and "their" misery.
  • Josephine (Susannah Wood) is a member of the local Twitterati who knows the location where @mal_ware usually checks in on a daily basis.
Kyle McReddie is David in I Saw It (Photo by:Colin Hussey)
  • David (Kyle McReddie) is a gay man in his 30s who moved to San Francisco three years ago in the hope of making a killing in the tech industry. Although he rides a Google bus to work, knows his way to Dolores Park, and buys groceries at Bi-Rite, he has no real friends, no furniture in his apartment, and no connections to the community in which he lives. With new mobile apps constantly coming online that cater to his needs, David can use his smartphone to place orders for laundry services, pizza deliveries, and sexual partners he contacts while cruising gay online hookup platforms on social media.
  • Diana (Genevieve Perdue) is one of David's neighbors in his apartment building. As the executive assistant to a scientist working on a biochemical subterfuge experiment named Project 46, she has already used its amazing powers to transform her husband from an enthusiastic meat eater into a vegan like herself. Smiling, laughing, and more than willing to accept that collateral damage is often the unanticipated cost of scientific experimentation, Perdue's Diana brings to mind the evil twin of Donna McKechnie's needy Cassie Ferguson from the original Broadway cast of A Chorus Line.
Genevieve Perdue is Diana in I Saw It (Photo by: Colin Hussey)

I Saw It deftly demonstrates what can happen when the "monster attacking a city" bears no resemblance to a prehistoric dinosaur or a radioactive mutant creature, but results from the dissemination of a carefully engineered hallucinogen which can "alter" a person's preferences and behaviors in the way a hacker might attack a software program's source code. On a good day, the lab-engineered biochemical can trigger a person's innermost fears, lack of self-esteem, or bravado. On a bad day..... oh, well, you know how some people act under stress!

Katrina Kroetch and Richard Wenzel are two of the
Bay Area's Twitterati in I Saw It (Photo by: Colin Hussey)

I was especially impressed by Genevieve Perdue's portrayal of the amoral Diana, Colleen Egan's resentful Nola, and Samantha Behr's "take-no-prisoners" characterization of Isla. Other members of the Twitterati included Katrina Kroetch, Jason Jeremy, Kyle McReddie, and Richard Wenzel.

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