Horror has a long tradition in the cinema and an even longer tradition in literature. Those traditions also feed the popularity of the survival horror video game. These three traditions of horror rely upon two prime techniques: environmental immersion and controlled perspective. The creators define the totality of what an audience can see, which largely directs how the audience feels and reacts.
Theater lacks this tradition because it lacks that total control necessary to the cinematic/literary effect. With a passive audience sitting in neatly arranged seats in an antiseptic environment, the whole ambience screams out its phoniness. Even under the best of circumstances a playwright, director and cast face an incredible challenge to rivet the audience and direct their attention and, more importantly for horror, their inattention. Andy Nyman, author of the long-running Ghost Stories makes the point: “What a clever horror stage production does is to remind the audience that the sense of danger is as real to you as it is to the people on stage.” Which is swell, if one can actually make it happen–a rare feat in the contemporary theater.
Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom attempts to make it. Jennifer Haley’s plays, I think, pretend to be the theatrical equivalent of slipstream horror literature. Comic books + horror + theater. Video games + horror + theater. Mash ’em up and see what comes out. The problem is that where slipstream fiction evokes the tropes of various genres, its main approach is to evoke the trope in order to explode it. The line between deadpan irony, pastiche, serious fiction, and parody is often thin. And there’s the problem with Neighborhood 3: the lines here are anything but thin. They are broad swaths, as broad as the aerosol paint graffiti in GTA: San Andreas. N3RD evokes the tropes of survival horror videogames in a theatrical setting, as a slipstream fiction might, but it doesn’t explode them, it sits on them.
The text gives a director and cast far too many opportunities to be vague in interpretation. In fact, it practically begs them to do so as Ms. Haley refuses to personify her characters as individual persons. Instead, they are types, literally indicated as such: Father Type, Son Type, Mother Type, Daughter Type. Beyond this, the script also lacks a moral compass. Is it a cautionary tale about virtual reality? Is it a statement on the exaggeration of dangers of games meant to show their ultimate harmlessness? Is it a wink-wink-nudge-nudge self-aware parody by hip young actors making fun of the lowbrow form of videogames with the highbrow theater? Or, in the ultimate moral cop-out, is it “just a story”? This isn’t an idly rhetorical question. The whole point of horror is to explore morality via mortality. Think Hostel. Think Frankenstein. Or, if you’re inclined to videogames, think Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Silent Hill. All of these are moral explorations. I’m not convinced there’s any sort of moral exploration in N3RD. Refusing to distinguish between the videogame’s amoral universe and the ostensibly moral world of In Real Life strikes me as a major failure to identify dramatic material that would become crystal clear if one were to play any popular online game as a female character for about thirty minutes. Just ask Anita Sarkeesian.
So I went into the UW UTS production of Ms. Haley’s play knowing full well that the young actors would be up against it. And, predictably, the script’s various flaws are at the fore. Director Michael Joseph Hanley seems attracted to scripts that have an uncomfortably fragile mix of tones and attitudes, such as his earlier production of Dog Sees God. Here he has found a pretty good tempo for the piece overall, and his collaboration with the designers is very thoughtful. But he’s powerless against the altogether-too-smug dialogue and its moments of feeble post-ironic hipster humor.
The good news, however, is that he always seems to get the best out of his collaborators. This production is no exception. The cast here are wonderful and throw themselves completely into the task of making sense out of the mess. As a result, the piece becomes like a playground for the actors, in the best possible sense. Rosalind Phelps, particularly, is marvelous in her multiple roles. I’ve watched her many times over the past couple of years and here she has given easily her best performance. Her voice has grown much more supple and she finally seems comfortable enough with her body to characterize both adults and adolescents precisely. Given her array of characters, she shows great range and a real gift for extracting genuine comedy from the most straightforward moments. She has grown into a much better actress than I would ever have thought, and her excellent performance pushes the other actors to give their best as well.
And give they do. Dominic Racelis rises to the occasion here. His characters are clinical in their emotionless detachment–perfect for the tone that Mr. Hanley has set. His acting is sometimes too reserved, perhaps, but his presence on the stage has a catalytic effect that brings very fine moments out of his scene partners.
I do not recall seeing Emma Broback in anything except the 2012 production of Pippin, but I now wish I had seen much more of her on stage. She has a very fine script sense and she does very interesting things with only silence and facial expressions. She also connects very well with Mr. Racelis, but her scene with Rosalind Phelps as the rather timid teen against Ms. Phelps’ cynical and drunk suburban trophy wife is unforgettable in its wit.
As for Thomas Allen, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his approach at first. Then it gradually occured to me that he was not playing the “types” Ms. Haley indicates in her script, but choosing his own much less obvious but still apropos characterizations. His Tobias, for instance, is extremely creepy because it’s played so straight, as though the actor is calling not on the audience’s stereotypes but rather on their unconscious archetypes. That’s usually the modus operandi of all truly great horror, and as a result Mr. Allen’s characters are the most truly horrifying ones in either their mindful strangeness or their mindless normality.
It’s a very fine ensemble. I do wish the playwright had given them more to work with. The superficiality of the script does not honor their skills. It certainly does not solve the riddle of how to present effective horror on a stage without turning the theater into a fully environmental haunted house. It is, however, pleasant enough to watch, completely predictable, but with an excellent display by an enthusiastic and talented cast. I look forward to seeing all of them again in something that matches their merits.