at Annoyance Theatre

Before Manson the Musical, The Real Live Brady Bunch, and That Darned Anti-Christ, even before Coed Prison Sluts, there was Splatter Theatre, Metraform’s first attempt to build a full-length play, or at least a very long one-act, on improvisation. Directed by Mick Napier, with music by Faith Soloway, Splatter Theatre opened a little more than five years ago in the second-floor performing space of the CrossCurrents Cabaret.

The play was beginning to attract a cult audience, but it had to close when the cabaret went under. Now, for one month only, Metraform has revived Splatter Theatre, performing it Saturday nights, right after Coed Prison Sluts.

Conceived as both a spoof of and homage to slasher movies and Grand Guignol, Splatter Theatre is easily, thanks to Steve Cowdrey’s special effects, the bloodiest play ever performed at the Annoyance Theatre. Throats are cut, bodies dismembered, intestines yanked out by the yard, and lots and lots of blood is shed.

Unfortunately, plot and character development are largely neglected. Which is a shame, because if there’s anything the Metraform actors are good at it’s creating strong, funny, original, multilayered characters at the snap of a finger. Less than 30 seconds after Matt Walsh enters, for example, he not only establishes that he’s the “class dick,” but also makes himself so annoying that we find ourselves looking forward to his gratuitous, bloody murder.

However, once the blood starts flowing in the second half of the play, all of the ensemble’s careful character work goes out the window. Characters enter the story–an annoying Camp Fire Girl (Susan Messing), a preppy couple from next door (Jodi Lennon and Dan Wachtel), an annoying paperboy (Eric Hoffman)–only to be immediately hacked to death. After a while this grim spectacle becomes tiresome.

Such a lapse might have been forgivable in 1987, when Napier et al were first trying to shake improv out of its dogmatic slumber. But after five years of increasingly sophisticated Metraform shows, not to mention Cardiff Giant’s experiments with two-act plays and even an improvisational musical, Splatter’s anemic attempt at story telling–the play is utterly without suspense–doesn’t cut it.

Napier and his seasoned cast are certainly capable of producing a much more exact parody of formulaic slasher films. But instead of creating a new work, they opted to revive an old one that no longer seems worthy of their talents.


Strawdog Theatre Company

Also unworthy of its cast’s talents is David Ives’s Ancient History, currently running at Strawdog Theatre. This very talky, essentially plotless two-person play concerns a pair of bright, witty, verbally aggressive New Yorkers who, for all their talk, have an extraordinarily hard time communicating.

Their problems communicating are nothing compared to the playwright’s. It takes a good act and a half for Ives to get around to revealing the conflict between these two lovebirds: Ruth would like to marry and start a family, while Jack, still wary after his first marriage fell apart, would prefer living together in perpetual childlike, childless bliss. Until then, Ives fills up the time with incessant witty chatter. “You’re impossible,” Ruth quips. “I’m not even probable,” Jack zings back. Ruth: “The two of us could make wonderful kids.” Jack: “We are wonderful kids.” All delivered while they loll around the bedroom or dress themselves, ever so slowly, for Ruth’s birthday party.

After a while all this repartee becomes annoying–largely because it takes so damned long for Ives to get around to his point: that the two, especially Jack, use humor as a defense mechanism. Until Ives reveals this in the second act we’re convinced it’s the playwright and not his characters who’s hiding behind the jokes.

No surprise that all of this obsessive joking around leaves little room for character development. Which is why I admire Jacquelyn Ritz’s performance as Ruth. Given a two-dimensional character who spends the first half of the play setting up Jack’s punch lines and the second half spouting truisms like “I don’t think it’s a crime to want a house and a husband and kids,” Ritz manages to give Ruth a much-needed third dimension. In her hands Ruth is not merely a male playwright’s idea of a sexy, affluent, fashionable Jewish American career woman, but a full human being with understandable needs and feelings. When Ruth pleads with Jack in the second act “Marry me, Jack”–a line she repeats at least three times–we hear how much she yearns for him to say yes. So much so that every time he evades the question or tries to explain why marriage is a bad idea, we respect him a little less.

It doesn’t help that Peter Voinovich, who handles comedy fairly well, is not so adept with his character’s serious side. When called upon to reveal some of the pain and anger boiling beneath the surface, he emotes like crazy but never quite convinces. Of course he might have done a better job with a stronger script.

As it is, Voinovich and Ritz are trapped in a play that takes two full acts to ask the question, “Will it ever stop?” Something we’d been asking ourselves for the better part of two hours.