Editors' pick

A Killing Game

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Editorial Review

Who knew a plague could be so fun?
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, December 4, 2012

At its zaniest moments, “A Killing Game” is like that point at a kid’s birthday blowout when the parents get out the silly string and let the sugar-saturated 7-year-olds run wild.

The 7-year-olds in this case are otherwise rational-seeming playgoers in their 20s through 60s, seated around the perimeter of a stage in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. On cue from one of the actors of the interactive theater company Dog & Pony DC, the audience members grab hold of plastic bottles and rolls of masking tape from a cart and begin squirting sanitizer, spraying water, and affixing lengths of tape to the walls and chairs.

Were unsuspecting visitors to stumble into the room, you wouldn’t blame them for assuming the trial of an experimental drug was going horribly awry when, in fact, things were going dandily. The clever shenanigans of “A Killing Game” -- whose premise is that as an epidemic spreads through a city, the stricken (you included) are dropping left, right and center -- hinge less on familiar dramatic linchpins of plot and character than on a more dangerous variable: spectators willing to get up and play along.

And what do you know? As with the aforementioned purification exercise, they do -- sometimes with a tad too much enthusiasm, but at other times, with amazing poise and pluck.

By some appreciably greater magnitude than in “Beertown,” the troupe’s highly entertaining audience-participation show about a Midwestern town meeting, “A Killing Game” upsets the traditional balance in the relationship between theater attendees and those they’ve paid to see. The gratification is immediate: The show turns anyone who cares to be an improv performer into one. Mind you, you can hang back and take in much of the 80-minute experience. But Dog & Pony is bent on ensuring that to some degree you become a participant, even if that means simply collapsing in your seat when the playing cards you’re dealt at the start of the evening instruct you to.

The irony of the sunny atmosphere created by seven color-coded actors -- they dress like the suspects in the board game Clue -- is that “A Killing Game” is all about death. “Achoo!” shouts the actor dressed nattily in blue (Jon Reynolds), and off we all go into the story of a plague. The tone of director Colin K. Bills’s production is mocking rather than ominous, however; as disaster epics go, it’s more “Airplane!” than “Andromeda Strain.”

If you take a step back from the nerdy nuttiness that ensues (we eventually wind up in a “Price Is Right”-type epidemiological game show, with a hilarious Prize Wall), you see that the yucks concern the reality that we’re all going to die: Death in this case is embodied by a glamorous, omnipresent woman in black (Rebecca Sheir), who silently files her cherry-red nails as the disease spreads. The game, it seems, is a metaphor for the denial of life’s finiteness. And a merry holiday season to you, too!

For “Beertown,” which enjoyed a satisfying run last summer in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s rehearsal space, at the Capital Fringe Festival, the audience in essence remained on the sidelines: We were merely encouraged to ask questions about the items to be included in a fictional city’s time capsule and then to vote on the contents. This time, we’re compelled to get out of our seats, mingle with fellow playgoers -- even form teams. (Singles Night at the Workshop, anyone?)

We now live, it seems, in Thespian Nation. It’s nothing short of amazing, how primed folks are (and not just the young ’uns) to shed their anonymity and strut their stage stuff. Dog & Pony eggs on ticket buyers by handing out packets of cards that assign every audience member a role: You may be asked to be the coroner, or the town funeral director, or a witness to one of the gruesome deaths from the mysterious illness. (In this live-action Mad Libs, the exotic symptoms and manifestations of the epidemic are made up by the whims of the participants.)

I was allocated the low-key part of Citizen, which allowed me to observe more than emote. Others basked exuberantly in the spotlight: One spectator volunteered that all the victims seemed to perform similar dance moves before they convulsed and died. And then he got up and demonstrated their demises Gangnam Style.

The actors form a high-energy phalanx, doing double duty as crucial townsfolk and our leaders during the game-show contests. They’re all agreeably “on,” with J. Argyl Plath -- the droll clerk of “Beertown” -- providing especially exemplary service as the game-show host.

The mood shifts at the end of this fresh and frolicsome evening to a more contemplative tone; if “A Killing Game” lacks anything, it’s a more fully realized narrative cohesion. But I will leave the discovery of this to those who RSVP. Dog & Pony, after all, wants to tailor this party just for you.