Thursday, June 3, 2010

Slasher's satire cuts to the quick at Actor's Express

Posted By on Thu, Jun 3, 2010 at 7:55 PM

click to enlarge HANG ON, THE HOCKEY TEAM'S HERE: David Sterritt and Annie York
  • HANG ON, THE HOCKEY TEAM'S HERE: David Sterritt and Annie York

In Actor’s Express’s Slasher, the most telling running jokes come in the horror-comedy’s second half. A de facto “montage” of short scenes on the set of the schlocky fright-flick Bloodbath shows its actresses off-stage activities. While we hear chainsaws and other unpleasant instruments in the background, the nubile starlets await their scenes while incongruously covered in grisly make-up, like facial burns or giant hooks protruding from their chests. The audience reaction to such sights goes through three quick phases:

1. Horror at imagery of female victims of violence;

2. Amusement at the casual, incongruous way the women ignore their made-up appearances; and

3. Disquiet at how easy it is to dismiss the sight of mutilated women as “normal” or “funny.”

With more laughs than all of the Scary Movie films put together, Slasher playwright Allison Moore not only dissects the misogyny of the horror genre, she also skewers the more self-serving notions of post-feminist empowerment. "This is a chronicle of female degradation!" old-school feminist Frances McKinney (Shelly McCook) proclaims of the Bloodbath screenplay. Her daughter Sheena (Annie York), Bloodbath's leading lady, counters that maybe she wants to be degraded - or at least to go through the motions in exchange for a hefty paycheck. Given that Sheena works at Hooters-esque eatery in Texas, being the "last girl" in a horror film seems like a vast improvement.

Moore proves a canny observer of how show business can distort the lives of small town Americans, as she demonstrates in Slasher and her previous Actor's Express production, Hazard County, which touched on "The Dukes of Hazard" and reality television. At best, her dialogue can be freighted with meaning, and the confrontations between Sheena, her mother and flailing filmmaker Marc Hunter (John Benzinger) draw on pop culture, sociological attitudes, family dynamics and interpersonal power struggles. Under the direction of Freddie Ashley, the cast brings out the humor in the potentially heady scenes. McCook finds slapstick opportunities in her angry, pathetic character, who blames the male establishment for her chronic fatigue and confinement on a Rascal scooter.

At less than 90 minutes Slasher goes by in a flash, but the play's second half turns out to be a little lighter than it needs to be. Most of Sheena's interchangeable co-stars come across as caricatures of airhead actresses, which seems a little condescending given the play's sensitivity to the portrayal of women. Two of the play's roles -- Marc's assistant Jody (David Sterritt) and Sheena's younger sister Hildy (Sarah Wallis) -- emerge as underwritten, and serve more as sounding boards for the other characters, without contributing much to Slasher's ideas. Similarly, a religious activist (Elizabeth Neidel) ultimately comes across as a predictable stereotype.

Slasher avoids using the film-within-a-film for meta-jokes about famous thrillers, although the fact that Sheena's character is called "Sloan" evokes the Scream rule that horror heroines should have male names. Slasher nevertheless contains enough thoughtful content to inspire audiences to reassess horror films and feminist orthodoxy, and it's hard to blame it for trying hard to amuse us. Plus, as the play's leading lady, York has an undeniably powerful chest.

I'm talking about the vocal oomph she puts behind her screams, of course. What else would I have meant?

Through June 16. $15-24. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Actor's Express, 887 W. Marietta St. 404-607-7469. www.actors-express.com.

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