It takes some special theatre magic to conjure a lot from a little. And just our luck: dog&pony have been playing with some worthy new potions. The company’s name may imply a rickety ruse, but their shows have delivered both whimsy and substance over the past five seasons. This bunch have become one of DC’s craftier clans of spell-casters, particularly following the enthusiastic success of their audience-interactive Beertown this year.
A Killing Game, at once more grimly themed and more lightheartedly played, shares Beertown’s civic DNA, a rowdy cross between a town hall meeting and a playground at recess. The townspeople that inhabit A Killing Game’s happy unnamed hamlet are dress-up adults, playing at big-world problems while they brim from the ground up with snickering youth.
It wouldn’t seem a laughing matter. Over an hour and a half (which whizzes by in the fun, heated fray) the town is struck by a deadly illness, fatal and fast-moving. The show opens with a zany little song-and-dance medley in the town square (taking Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” as its musical spine) but soon bodies are coughing and keeling and the authorities are whipped up in a panic.
Directed with silly but solid instincts by Colin K. Bills – himself a Beertown alum – A Killing Game chronicles a society’s descent into confusion and fear.
Even so, the emphasis here is on the Game. Bills, who has won three Helen Hayes Awards since 2008 for his professional lighting design, here hooks into an alternate (and equally electric) source of energy: the audience. Who survives the plague, who dies, who cries? That’s all up to you.
Each audience member receives a set of cues and assigned roles from a stack of large playing cards doled out pre-show, and with these passport-sized papers we enter the theatre empowered to get involved. Some of the crowd-sourced drama that results is organized mechanics, but much of the tone and talk of the evening is thought out aloud, in the moment. We begin as stone-faced spectators; we end like the world’s most talkative flash mob.
Scenes progress with nominal points of plot, stuck up like tentpoles to help keep the circus from sinking. Contagion spreads. Officials arrive. There is cleaning, quarantining, rationing, packing and unpacking. But if you’re seeking a strong narrative thread, give up – you might as well get mad at your coloring book because you can’t find your crayon of choice. A Killing Game is far more spontaneous, and infinitely more surprising, than most traditionally scripted shows you’ve seen lately.
Some moments in the participation shtick are a bit ham-handed, but most are quite enjoyable. And just as we derive half the fun of a parlor trick from the reaction it elicits, so does the payoff of A Killing Game ultimately pour from the shocked, eager energies of the audience members around you. The evening is handed over, in large part, to us. Miraculously, we don’t screw it all up.
A Killing Game
Closes December 22, 2012
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop
545 7th Street, SE
Washington, DC 20003
1 hour, 30 minutes without intermission
Wednesdays thru Saturdays
The show extends beyond the four modest walls of the Capital Hill Arts Workshop space and into the digital realm as well; dog&pony strongly encourages audience members to bring a smartphone or Internet-enabled tablet into the show and talk via Twitter to the characters – who often pull out their own phones onstage to shoot out updates. In one moment you converse, for real, with an actor mid-scene. In another moment, you get an emergency update from the fictional Health Commissioner. Just one more angle on a show that’s all about quick, fleeting fun.
Perhaps a bit too fleeting. The show is inspired in part by Eugene Ionesco’s 1970 play Killing Game, and certainly inherits some of that play’s absurdist roots. Ionesco can teach us much about the pervasive bleed-through between laughing and crying, for his was a haunting brand of comedy — his plays make us laugh from the relieved recognition that others suffer the same anxieties that awake us, too, in the middle of the night. The dog&pony adventure, by contrast, is more than happy to tuck us in when it’s all over, and pat us slyly on the back for playing along.
Touching the more permeating pain in such a tale of sickness, darkened so keenly by the specter of mortality, is well within reach of the company’s abilities, and one does hunger for some sadder, tougher stuff to carry away at the end of the night. A Killing Game can be riotous fun, but without some shadows and contrast — what, exactly, are we laughing through? — the humor carries no sublime relief, merely the happy chatter of a schoolyard game.
And at that, they’re adept. It’s all grand fun, both blissful icebreaker and bravely touch-and-go social experiment, not to mention inventive theatre. The house is small and word is spreading, so don’t miss your chance to come shake some new hands. Just cover your mouth when you cough.
A Killing Game . Developed and scripted by Colin K. Bills, Rachel Grossman, Lorraine Ressegger, J. Argyl Plath, Jon Reynolds, Rebecca Sheir, and Gwydion Suilebhan . Directed by Colin K. Bills. Performed by Genna Davidson, Sean Paul Ellis, Jessica Lefkow, J. Argyl Plath, Jon Reynolds, Yasmin Tuazon. Ensemble: Wyckham Avery, Christopher Baine, Colin K. Bills, Genna Davidson, Sean Paul Ellis, Rachel Grossman, Melanie Harker, Jessica Lefkow, Shannon Davies Mancus, Elaine Yuko Qualter, J. Argyl Plath, Lorraine Ressegger, Jon Reynolds, Rebecca Sheir, Ivania Stack, Gwydion Suilebhan, Yasmin Tuazon. Aptly supported by Ellys Abrams. Graphics by Kate Ahern Loveric. Designed by Colin K. Bills & Ivania Stack, with Christopher Baine . Stage Manager: Melanie Harker. Produced by dog&ponydc. Reviewed by Hunter Styles