Playwright: Tony Burgess. At: Strawdog Theatre at Hugen Hall, 3929 N. Broadway. Tickets: 866-811-4111; www.strawdog.org; $15 . Runs through: Feb. 2
First you take War of the Worldsboth the H.G. Wells ( extraterrestrial invasion ) and Orson Welles ( radio broadcasts ) accountsand combine it with Samuel Delany's Babel-17 ( language used as a weapon ) for your premise. Then you develop it along the cinematic lines of Ridley Scott's Alien ( parasitic infections ) and George Romero's Night of the Living Dead ( cannibalism and mass delusions ). The result is likely to be Tony Burgess' deliberately retro, cold war paranoia-fueled allegorybut with a distinctive modern twist.
The plot is rooted in vintage bomb-shelter dynamics: shock-jock Grant Mazzy now spews his "take no prisoners" oratory ( in between farm reports and lost-cat alerts ) over the rural air of Pontypool, Illinois, to the chagrin of his fellow staffers, station manager Sydney Briar, tech assistant Laurel Ann Drummond and traffic reporter Ken Loney. On this cold February day, however, ominous dispatches are being relayed to the basement offices: citizens attacking one another and devouring the bodies of their victims, then retreating to chant words chosen less for expression of personal convictions than as vehicles of aural affirmation. After the bioinvasion has penetrated the information centers, we learntoo latethat the contagion is spread by verbal vectors.
When the mere act of speaking is to invite destruction, how are we to warn each other of the danger? Unlike the film version of Burgess' apocalyptic fable, this stage adaptation by the author provides us no tidy answer, but neither does Strawdog's remount of their 2012 production end in mute resignation as before. Instead, our herowhose entire life is invested in his powers of speechresolves to fight, for as long as he is able, the illness that he knows will eventually defeat him. As for the rest of uswell, the script hints at vulnerabilities in the enemy agents, introducing the possibility of deterrents.
The Strawdog loft's Hugen Hall rec-room decor in no way detracts from the claustrophobic ambience necessary to maintain the appropriate level of suspense, even as the play hurtles along for a tightly packed 60 minutes. Under Anderson Lawfer's direction, the castled by Jamie Vann as the blustering Mazzylikewise waste not a second in actorly dithering, but remain wholly focused on their story, whether fleeing showers of blood onstage or whispering into a field-phone from a hideout in a grain silo. Whatever unthinkable disaster may lie at the source of your nightmares, prepare to leave the theater thinking seriously about an emergency plan.