The Washington Post

In “A Killing Game,” we die laughing

From left, Wyckham Avery, Jessica Lefkow, Yasmin Tuazon, Jon Reynolds, Sean Paul Ellis and J. Argyl Plath in "A Killing Game," by Dog & Pony D.C. (Joe Bourguignon)

“A Killing Game” is, at last, dead-on.

Those other-centered folks at Dog & Pony D.C. — the company that wants to put you in the actor’s seat — have brought back their disease-minded audience-
participation show
. . . in an incarnation at Woolly Mammoth Theatre that’s far superior to the version they unveiled last fall in Capitol Hill.

Equal parts reality-show parody, black comedy and disaster drill, the 90-minute production has been rethought and refined in smart ways by its nine writers and designers. Because the seven-
member cast can now rely on a more solidly built spine for this improvisatorial performance piece, “A Killing Game,” presented as part of the Capital Fringe Festival, expresses its macabre cheer more completely. And as a result, it elicits more consistently witty contributions from its extended supporting cast — the audience.

It’s kind of a marvel, seeing how eager the fully engaged Washingtonians who fill the rows of chairs in Woolly’s rehearsal hall are to have their moment. Called on to play the role of the coroner at the performance I attended, a woman seated to my right rose and confidently strode over to the limp bodies of other audience members, playing early victims of a mysterious illness. “My method is not biasing,” she declared, using terminology that suggested scientific investigation was not entirely new to her. “One hundred percent of these people are dead.”

The laugh her ad-lib earned is the highest honor that “A Killing Game” bestows (aside from the lollipops awarded at the performance’s end to a few of the best impromptu players). In fact, the entire show is an absurdist joke, in which the biggest laugh is on us.

“A Killing Game” takes the most terrifying of human events — an out-of-control epidemic — and turns it into a game show. Five cast members, whose character names and outfits are color-coded, like those of the suspects in the board game Clue, perform skits and break the audience into groups to play the more than slightly ridiculous rounds of the contest. The sixth character, dressed in a suit as shiny as the fender of your Hyundai, is your host, Mr. Chrome, who is played to the ingratiating head-camp-counselor hilt by J. Argyl Plath. And the seventh, swathed in black (a chic Rebecca Sheir), observes the proceedings from the sidelines in silence: She’s death, with plenty of reason to be patient.

The participatory nature of “A Killing Game” is tipped at the door, where you’re handed the thin deck of playing cards that will guide you through the experience. You’re encouraged, too, on this rare theater occasion to keep your smartphone on and follow Twitter, because at certain moments, the cast will be issuing alerts and soliciting online comments from you as well. (The Web component still feels as if it’s an afterthought. It has yet to be integrated with a clearly defined idea of how it could affect and advance the game-play.)

An extrovert’s temperament is an advantage here, but it is not essential. The cast members are well schooled in keeping in check the more excitable players and leaving in peace those who wish to remain bystanders.

As in their previous piece, “Beertown,” an exercise in theatrical democracy set at a Midwestern town meeting, “A Killing Game” is in part a lab experiment: By what means and to what degree can theater make use of an audience as a creative force? Unlike some “interactive” events, in which actors jump off the stage and sit in playgoers’ laps or dragoon a spectator or two onto the stage for an anxious cameo in a short skit, “A Killing Game” tries, with more trust in its customers, to upend the us-and-them aspect of theatergoing. It’s as if the troupe were saying, “Hey: Uncross your arms! We’re all on the same side!”

The philosophy is conveyed more successfully in this rendition of “A Killing Game” than it was in the fuzzier original form at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. Gone is a ruminative epilogue of conventional dramatics that drained some of the focus — and joy — from the concept. And more nimbly adapting the techniques the actors developed in “Beertown,” “A Killing Game” now includes an improvisatorial sequence at the local television station, where accounts of epidemic-
related horrors are coming in. Posing as on-scene reporters, the cast shoves invisible mikes in audience members’ faces and asks those how-do-you-feel questions that turn every modern disaster into theater of the absurd.

The actors who play Mr. or Ms. Blue, Pink, Green, Orange and Purple — Jon Reynolds, Yasmin Tuazon, Wyckham Avery, Sean Paul Ellis and Jessica Lefkow — do so with a verve and assurance that prevent “A Killing Game” from feeling as if it ever might go off the rails. Given the infinite variety of sidetracks possible when one gives so much power to the patron, the show proves to be terminally skillful.

A Killing Game

by Dog & Pony D.C. Directed by Colin K. Bills. Design by Bills, Ivania Stack and Christopher Baine. About 90 minutes. Through Sunday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit or call 866-811-4111.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.



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