Scary Stage Sci-Fi

01/27/2010 3:30 PM |

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.