Avoid The Splash Zone: ‘Pontypool’ at Players By The Sea

Players by the Sea is storming its studio stage with an immersive psychological thriller designed to captivate audiences in real time. “Pontypool” tells the story of a massive storm that causes the townspeople to develop strange speech patterns and commit horrific acts of violence.

The hour-long show has no intermission. Once the audience is seated and the virus takes hold, there is nothing to do but ride out the storm. “Pontypool” opens Oct 26 with an original art exhibit entitled “Verba” by Drew Edward Hunter on display in the lobby. The featured works are inspired by the production.

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The production runs through Nov. 3 on the Players by the Sea Studio Stage in Jacksonville Beach. A special show will be staged on Halloween that promises to deliver an extra bite (www.playersbythesea.org).

Terrence Scott plays radio DJ Grant Mazzy who is trapped in his studio with his staff. The cast also includes Amanda Jackson, Bryan Martins, Deena Davis, Austin Kelley, Kevin Turner and Rich Pintello. Mazzy takes to the airwaves to warn listeners about the devastating virus and its unlikely mode of transmission. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel War of the Worlds. The broadcast warned of an alien invasion and generated a nationwide panic.

“I think there are some parallels there. This show was originally written by Tony Burgess for radio. It was not a staged production at first,” says director Stephanie Natale Frus. “Once the show was produced on the radio, someone else heard it and contacted Tony and said ‘hey, this would make a good movie’. And then they went ahead and made a short movie out of it and only then did someone say this would make a cool screen play and they worked with Tony and kind of adapted it to theatre. We’ve gone a step further.”

“Pontypool” was reimagined by local playwright Kelby Siddons with the author’s permission to shift the location of the viral outbreak from a snowy Canadian town to a fictional seaside community in Jacksonville.

“The name refers to a place, a made-up town. In our version, it’s Pontypool Beaches, Jacksonville, Florida. [Siddons] has edited the show with Tony’s approval to update the storm which adds to the quarantine,” Natale Frus says. “In the original work it was sets in Canada during a snowstorm which in Florida isn’t very real-life scary, so we changed it to a hurricane. We’ve changed all the components in the written play to match a hurricane instead of a snowstorm.”

With a show that leans heavily on mental terror, it’s a challenge to present gore and violence without crossing the line to campy.  Natale Frus says the cast went to great lengths to adhere to the story’s original style with all the mechanics in place for a good scare.

“I will admit, when I first read it, I thought this could go funny so easily. With so much gore, especially live theatre gore, it does go into the funny side. But we’re approaching this from a psychological thriller standpoint and attempting to make it real-life in real time scary so we’re doing an hour show with no intermission. Once you are in that room, you’re in the room in which the virus, aka zombie outbreak does breach. We’re hoping to make it an immersive experience and keep it scary,” she says.

Natale Frus says she can appreciate the recent zombie phenomenon and the dark humor of such films as Night of the Walking Dead, but she prefers more cerebral content like Silence of the Lambs that plucks at the psychological nerves. She’s attacking all the senses to ensure audiences respond to “Pontypool” in the same vain. Coffee will be brewing in the space to stimulate the olfactory senses and hurricane drinks will be served to compliment the overall theme of the production.

“My focus as the director has been incorporating all five of the senses into the production so that we can really capture the audiences’ attention in more than one way,” she says. “The immersion is going to come from how the action is played on the stage as well. We have some water and gore elements that will be displayed right there in front of the audience, but we might have to put a warning for the very first row that they are in a splash zone.”

Audiences don’t need to be a fan of the horror genre to appreciate the thrill of “Pontypool.” The author’s love of language creates a uniquely layered subtext that gives the story its teeth and a series of surprises helps to bring all the other elements into play.

“This play is for theatre lovers because it is a play about words. That it happens to be a psychological thriller, that it happens to have a viral quarantine is almost just a plot device for the author to come across with some major themes that are applicable to our current society such as communication through public broadcasting, communication through media and his commentary about our society’s inability to silence themselves, to be quiet and take a step back from the politics and everything that is kind of noisy right now and just relax,” the director says.

“One of my favorite scenes in the play is when one of the characters says, ‘we’ve got to stop talking about this’, yet they don’t. The play really speaks to that. I think anyone who enjoys theatre will find this engaging because the characters are really well-written, and really make you think about what you’re doing with your life and that’s always a good thing.”

About Liza Mitchell