Do gory, sadistic, misogynistic movies exploit the women who play their victims? Or do they empower them? “It can’t be exploitation if they’re paying me so much,” reasons Sheena McKinney, a young waitress who, on the strength of her ability to scream, is offered $15,000 to star in a slasher film called Bloodbath. To Marc Hunter, its unscrupulous director, Sheena seems perfect to play “the last girl,” the culminating fatality in a series of atrocities inflicted on attractive women.
Sheena’s mother Frances, a fuming feminist whose cumulative exasperations have reduced her to a bitter, pill-popping invalid, is adamantly opposed to her 21-year-old daughter’s cinematic debut. Summarizing the screenplay of Bloodbath as “a chronicle of female degradation,” Frances declares: “I will not allow you to be tortured and humiliated.” Rebelling against maternal tyranny, Sheena insists, “It’s not real. I’m in control.” In a madcap plot that often seems on the verge of veering out of control, Slasher examines the limits of power — of movies, plays, and the people who make and consume them.
Slasher premiered at the Humana Festival in Louisville in 2009 and has already been staged in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. But it is set in Austin and Round Rock and, for playwright Allison Moore, an SMU graduate who now resides in Minneapolis, its production by AtticRep at Trinity University must be particularly gratifying. The talented San Antonio cast does a convincing job of simulating Texas accents. For director Kyle Gillette, who has cut his teeth on Euripides, Beckett, Handke, and Stoppard, a dark farce about the making of a low-budget slasher movie might not have seemed like much to chew on. And Slasher appears an odd fit for AtticRep’s growing repertoire of challenging work by Albee, Pinter, Shepard, and others. It is a raucous entertainment that, in Gillette’s energetic mixed-media staging, transforms sullied straw into Goldoni, not Sophocles. The plot, involving the unlikely alliance between an abortion-clinic bomber and a fanatical champion of women’s rights to terrorize a movie set, is preposterous, and the play’s ending is cartoonish. Slasher spoofs Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and other grisly concoctions that wallow in psychopathic violence. However, those movies already spoof themselves, and camping out on camp soon becomes tedious, until a real bear pokes its head into the tent.
That happens through the agency of Rachel Joseph, who endows the deranged Frances McKinney, a seething bundle of resentments, with a degree of tragic dignity. Ferocious in protecting her two daughters, Joseph’s Frances manages merely to oppress and incense them. Jaime Mire’s Sheena is a layered creation — flirtatious waitress, star-struck ingénue, defiant daughter, and agile performer not entirely content with the role of victim. The other characters are largely caricatures — Willy Razavi’s Marc is a deceitful opportunist who has come to Texas in order to make a killing on a slasher flick he could not afford to make in L.A., Nathan Thurman’s Jody is so besotted with the glamour of movies that he remains oblivious to their sleaze, and Jennie Zurovetz’s Hildy McKinney is the dutiful daughter that her ambitious older sister has tired of being.
“It’s an allegory,” says Marc, discussing Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other slasher films during an improbable moment of reflection. “They tell us about our deepest fears.” Though Slasher is made of frolic more than fear, it does ask its audience to consider why the spectacle of butchery can be so appealing. Is it liberating or enslaving, or both? Among the play’s easy satirical targets are local TV evening newscasts that garner ratings by preying on the public’s prurient interest in human degradation. But Slasher also invites interrogation of its own designs. It is a play that lifts its raw materials by diving into the Dumpsters of contemporary popular trash. To follow the making of Bloodbath is to engage in an unsettling exercise in sadomasochism. The ludicrous events that transpire require suspension of disbelief across a span wider than the Straits of Mackinac. So why did I so enjoy the evening I spent witnessing all this mayhem? •
Through May 30