[photos: Brian Paulette]
We’ve heard it said, “Words mean things.” And even as far back as the 1800s, we’ve been wrangling with the notion of how much words impact our lives.
Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never harm me.
Nowadays, of course, we have “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” to allow people to avoid getting their feelings hurt because of something someone says.
But what if words actually could do harm?
That’s the premise of Pontypool, based on the movie of the same name, which was an adaptation of the 1995 book Pontypool Changes Everything. Morning drive radio jock Grant
Mazzy (played by John Rensenhouse) starts to get reports about strange goings-on in the small Canadian town of Pontypool. The victims become zombie-like creatures, and the virus is determined to be spread by the use of language. The very act of speaking certain words causes the virus to spread.
The production, developed locally by Kimberly Queen and Cody Wyoming, draws heavily on the influences of War of the Worlds and Talk Radio. Wyoming, who also directs, says, “War of the Worlds was a huge [influence], and I have a vinyl copy of that, and I listen to it a lot.” He adds, “To me, the most important thing in getting this across was making sure that the show operated like a real radio station.”
To that end, the show — produced in a black box presentation — puts the audience front and center, surrounding the players as the show unfolds. When Mazzy is “on the air” or when his production team, played by Katie Gilchrist and Regina Weller, talk to him from the control booth, the electronics all work as if they were part of a real station.
“When the fantastical elements begin to appear,” he says, “the more grounded in the actual reality we are, the more you’re going to buy those fantastical elements when they start to emerge.”
Gilchrist warns that the audience needs to pay attention throughout the play: “It demands that everyone be on high alert, because if you snooze for a second, you miss something that’s incredibly important.”
Rensenhouse, a classically-trained Shakespearean actor making his Living Room debut, notes that the timing of the production is especially noteworthy because of the political campaigns. “It has made me look at the whole political scene and the whole use of language in political campaigns.”
Starring John Rensenhouse, Katie Gilchrist, Regina Weller, Bradley Thomas, Mitch Brian
Pontypool is at The Living Room Theater in Kansas City through January 31.