About the Living Room I can say this: Since its inception, the funky downtown company has given us dramas and comedies that set it apart from other theaters in town.
The shows aren’t always great, but sometimes they are. Either way, the place has a singular sensibility that demands attention.
The current production is “Pontypool,” an adaptation by Kimmie Queen and Cody Wyoming of a radio play by Canadian writer Tony Burgess. The radio script was, in turn, an adaptation of his screenplay for the 2008 horror movie of the same name. And the movie was based on his 1995 novel, “Pontypool Changes Everything,” part of the author’s Pontypool Trilogy.
This stage version, directed by Wyoming, is short and muscular and anchored by a fascinating performance by classically trained John Rensenhouse in his Living Room debut. That Rensenhouse, a stalwart of the Shakespeare Festival and a member of the prestigious Kansas City Actors Theatre, would perform at the Living Room tells you something about the company’s standing in the theater community.
Rensenhouse plays Grant Mazzy, an early-morning radio announcer who begins receiving sketchy reports about what seems to be a virus spread by certain words in the English language. The victims aren’t zombies, exactly, but they come close. Crowds of them are filling the streets, and reports of cannibalism begin filtering into the station.
Mazzy is supported by his producer, Sydney Briar (Katie Gilchrist), with whom he sometimes clashes, and by his technical director, Laurel-Ann Drummond (Regina Weller), a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Mazzy also receives occasional reports from an unseen traffic reporter, Ken Loney (Mitch Brian), whose eyewitness accounts of the mayhem unfolding outside the radio station become increasingly disturbing.
Later the group is joined by Dr. John Mendez (Bradley Thomas), who may be off his rocker but has worked out how the virus is spread. After a certain point Mazzy, Briar and Mendez are locked in the studio, while in the outer control room Drummond undergoes a horrific transformation. What she becomes isn’t a zombie, exactly, but close.
The show is staged in what I call the Living Room’s back room, an intimate space where subtlety in the performances isn’t wasted. Wyoming and Tim Ahlenius designed the effective set, which places Rensenhouse close to the viewers and allows us to see the convincing control room through a glass window.
When Mazzy is “on the air” we hear Rensenhouse’s voice through a microphone. We also hear Gilchrist and sometimes Weller filtered through live mics when they communicate with Rensenhouse in the studio. It’s an effective choice that bolsters the illusion. Sound designer David Kiehl is responsible for much of the show’s compelling atmosphere. The same is true of lighting designer Lacey Pacheco.
Burgess raises philosophical questions about the nature of language and the meaning of words, but the play, like the movie, left me scratching my head. At some point I lost the thread of inner logic that “explains” how people turn into zombie-like creatures.
Even so, Rensenhouse captures our attention in a riveting closing monologue that I wish I could see one more time. Categorize this one as claustrophobic theater with a compelling sense of immediacy.
“Pontypool” runs through Jan. 31 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee. Call 816-533-5857 or go to thelivingroomkc.com.