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Pontypool at Strawdog Theatre Company: Theater review

Tony Burgess's zombie-apocalypse horror story oddly lacks bite.

 (Photograph: Tom McGrath - TCMcG Photography)
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Photograph: Tom McGrath - TCMcG Photography

Pontypool at Strawdog Theatre Company

 (Photograph: Tom McGrath - TCMcG Photography)
2/2
Photograph: Tom McGrath - TCMcG Photography

Pontypool at Strawdog Theatre Company

Radio jockey Grant Mazzy (Jamie Vann) struggles to find any drama or shock value in what passes for news and weather in the small town of Pontypool, Illinois, while his producer Sydney (Anita Deely) attempts to control him—that is, until acccounts of crazed mobs and military quarantines turn their station into the ground zero of reporting on the zombie apocalypse. It sounds like we’re in for a great time as Mazzy delivers the broadcast of his life in Strawdog Theatre Company’s latest production—except he doesn’t. Tony Burgess’s Pontypool started its life as a novel, was adapted into a movie and is now a 60-minute play that draws from both previous sources, but it feels like the story got lost in the process.  

Anyone with a functioning adrenal gland will appreciate the incremental terror of Strawdog’s production. As information and reports flood into the radio station, its connectedness, ironically, seems to feed its isolation. The outside world recedes until everyone is broadcasting to, quite possibly, no one. Pontypool will elevate your heart rate following the tried-and-true formula for building a horror mystery: tension to fear to fully realized horror. A mystical twist brings new life to an overdone genre, and prevents you from predicting any outcomes.

But spectacular blood splatter can’t make up for story. It baffles me to say I need a more rigorous narrative from my schlocky 60 minutes of scares, but Pontypool is the proof. Plot elements are introduced and forgotten, like the army quarantine that’s mentioned only once. No detail ever becomes relevant. And the protagonists may as well be strangers, to the point they cease to make sense. Sydney receives a call from a young daughter we never knew about near the end of the play. What mother wouldn’t run to her child in the event of apocalypse? Why was she onstage for the last 40 minutes?

But hey, it’s a horror story, right? Well, that’s the issue. I want to cozy up to the meatsacks who're about to scream and die for my entertainment. I need to know a thing or two about the sad-sack town they’re talking about, if only to chuckle at its destruction. Horror—particularly cult-style horror like Pontypool—has laughter at its heart, a gleeful exercise in the breakdown of society. Pontypool never finds a promise to deliver on. I love the idea of a shock jock delivering his last session at the end of the world, but Mazzy’s big mouth disappears by minute 20. The effects of the zombie uprising on a pathetic small town in Illinois? Count me in—but the titular location never comes into play. Pontypool is a cult film-turned-play in search of its joke.

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