ATTACK OF THE KILLER B'S
Some Mo' Productions
at the Factory Theater
A little more than a year ago Sean Abley, taking a cue from Jill and Faith Soloway's popular stage version of The Brady Bunch, directed his own adaptation of a cult classic, the unintentionally campy antidrug film from the 1930s Reefer Madness. Though the stage show has never achieved the sort of national attention that flung the Soloway sisters into orbit around Los Angeles, it continues to draw a young, enthusiastic audience, even after two moves, from Stage Left to the Organic Theater and from there to the new Factory Theater (Cardiff Giant's old space) in Rogers Park.
That success speaks volumes about Abley's skills as a director, or at least about his skills as a builder of tight ensembles of talented comic actors capable of re-creating the look and feel of this lead-footed film--without this kind of cast Reefer Madness would be nothing. Abley's so-called adaptation, after all, is little more than a transcription of the movie, which I'm sure is far less interesting on the page than on the stage. His most recent work, the considerably richer and more ambitious Attack of the Killer B's, is similarly dependent on its witty, inventive cast.
Here, instead of transcribing another cult film, Abley has taken key scenes from nearly a dozen SF and horror movies--among them Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Glen or Glenda?, Psycho, Friday the 13th--and cobbled them into a crazy 60-minute play. The story, such as it is, concerns a brother and sister, Glen and Barbara, whose trip (straight out of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead) to visit their mother's grave is rudely interrupted by shambling zombies. Fleeing these ghouls, the two find themselves trapped in one after another psychotronic movie, encountering not only zombies but body snatchers, marijuana pushers, a 50-foot woman, a sadistic prison warden, and three of film's best-known psychokillers: Freddy, Jason, and Norman Bates.
The premise of Abley's play is remarkably similar to that of Christopher Durang's pastiche comedy History of the American Film, in which each scene parodies a different well-known Hollywood film, but Attack of the Killer B's more closely resembles the hip, anarchic irreverence of the early Mad magazine (when it still featured the work of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder).
Like Kurtzman and Elder, and unlike their flat-footed successors, Abley and codirector Amy Seeley have done something far more difficult and artistically satisfying than crank out yet another parody of cult horror films. On the Factory Theater's tiny stage they have created an alternative B-movie universe, where every lonely motel is run by Norman Bates and every summer camp haunted by murderous spirits in hockey masks.
As in Reefer Madness, the excellent ensemble holds this collage together. But this time the 20-member cast had to master a dozen styles, flashing from one genre to another as quickly as they change clothing (which they do a lot, as most of them play a minimum of three characters).
Naturally each actor has specialties. Jim Blanchette, so ill-used in last autumn's Trask & Fenn (he provided the distracting, unnecessary, and unfunny comic relief), gets to parade his skills as a man of a thousand comic expressions. Kristen Swanson gets to play both the cool, sophisticated Janet Leigh checking into the Bates Motel and, in a Jailhouse Rock homage, a go-go girl.
I could go on--about Scott Parkinson's precise, dancelike physical comedy, about Abley's gift for playing a nebbish, about Jenny Kirkland's uncanny imitation of the 50-foot woman. But suffice it to say that there isn't a weak link in the cast, easily the most versatile group of comic actors this side of the Annoyance Theatre. You'd have to be a pod person not to laugh at this fast-paced, good-natured romp through B-movieland.