The latest incarnation of 31Down
's The Assember Dilator
, which was first produced in connection with the Bushwick Starr at PS 122, and had a very short run earlier this month as a part of the Other Forces Festival
at St. Mark's Church, is without question some of the most frightening live theater around. The fear felt was two-toned: it was the immediate type of knee-jerk bodily reaction to suspense and darkness that is palpable within a performance space (or haunted house), but also the less apparent but no less jarring terror that stays with you and follows you as you leave the performance. That paranoia comes from the subject material of the play, whose dark future implications could wake you up three or four nights later because you wonder if it might not all come true.
It's all too rare for a company to bring the sci-fi/horror genres to the stage successfully. The trend seems to lead either to overwrought, Orewellian and politically over-stuffed future pieces
, or campy musicals
that essentially parody the genre, to the dismay of serious Philip K. Dick
fans. This failure is proportionate and has to do greatly with how understated the political message is in a play, and how adverse the company is to referring to the play as an actual sci-fi production beforehand. It's almost as if the very nature of theater and dramatic stage performance precludes the successful production of tense, suspenseful action, buttressed with little to no dialogue and creepy sound effects (the bread and butter of horror films). How can it be called true acting if all the actors are doing is pretending to trip on bad acid and pour water on their heads? But that's why Richard Foreman started the Ontological Hysteric Theater (and the Incubator
thereafter), so that the audience can be forewarned, without anyone actually having to say it, that they should be ready for multi-sensorial shock treatment.
Dr. Assember (played by an increasingly giddy and insane Ryan Holsopple, who also did the sound design) has essentially run into the paramount problem that all experimental research doctors face at one point or another in their careers: he can't test the medicine because he has no funding, and he can't get any funding because their are no results for the board, because he can't test the medicine. As the audience we become immediately privy to Dr. Assember's solution to his predicament, the sci-fi trope that has started so many different episodes of horror: he will test the medicine on himself, and then on his Nurse as well. Dr. Assember is testing an eye drop that essentially gives the recipient X-ray vision by dilating the pupils to astronomical proportions.
The action unfolds in snippets; the actors do not speak for most of the play, as the pre-recorded voice of Dr. Assember narrates the clandestine clinical trial, describing the results of different doses in cold, scientific explanations. The audience serves as witness to the human experiment/atrocity occurring on the other side of the (imagined) one way glass. We are the control in the experiment. Everything starts out ok, and the drops work, sort of. The medicine allows Dr. Assember to see his nurse's panties (again and again), but their are certain "psychadelic side effects" to the treatment which are troubling, if not downright disturbing. Well, I'll just say it outright: this shit makes you trip balls—like, Fear and Loathing-you-took-too-much-adrenochrome
The lighting for the sparse black box set is expertly done and adds to the sense that you are trapped in a drug-induced state. The spots and strangely formed lamps on the stage (not to mentions a pipe spewing white underwear) echo the pro-longed pulses of light coming from a strobe, bright and reflective on the actors' sweat soaked faces, with the similarly long moments of pause in darkness heightening the sense of suspense that the audience feels. One expects the lights to burst back on to the actors screaming at the audience "Boo!" like an ontological haunted hay ride. But this isn't the Hysteric's style, so the big scare never comes and the tension remains at one piercing treble scream for the entire 70 minutes.
To put this in perspective: with horror movies you know the monster is coming through the door but you don't know when, and then when it comes, it's over—you scream, jump, and finally you let go of your neighbor's arm and breathe. But this release never actually manifests with Assember
so the tension is prolonged and sustained throughout. The nurse (played by a wraith-like and porcelain-complexioned Caitlin McDonough-Thayer) becomes the sex-object of the play as well the representation of the paranoid addict. Dr. Assember idolizes her, wide eyed, as well as tests his drug on her, effectively owning her, and the audience can see the excitement she feels to be participating in such "ground-breaking" research. The struggle to assume power in the play degrades into a need for the drug and nothing else. The third actor in the play is the sound that emanates from gigantic speakers beneath the bleachers and many other high wattage cones throughout the space. Every reverberation can be felt, every scream and rumble.
The most lasting scare in the piece (spoilers!) and most chilling moment is the Nurse's short monologue at the end of the play (this, even after Dr. Assember has pulled an Oedipus Rex and is wearing bloody underwear on his head) as she introduces the audience to the research facility, all the wonderful things they are doing, all the great advances to human health they are working on, even as she is dropping more and more of the Assember Dilator into her eyes, eventually dunking her head in a bucket of the stuff and bathing in it. It is clear that Assember Dilator
(like other Foreman-affiliated plays
) wants to put the audience in a drugged state of paranoia and hold them there, by giving "drugs" to the actors, and creating the sense that they have lost control. But perhaps the larger point is that one doesn't need drugs to get to this point, as long as the Ontological Hysteric is still putting on performances.
(photo credit: Paula Court, 31 Down)