Looking around the Players by the Sea Studio Theatre ahead of the opening of its new psychological thriller “Pontypool,” the anticipation for what was to come was building. Players by the Sea audiences were warned that there was no intermission and once seated, there was nothing to do but ride out the storm.
Set in a fictional Florida town of Pontypool, reworked to bring the destination south from Canada to Jacksonville. The script was edited by local playwright extraordinaire Kelby Siddons with permission from author Tony Burgess to change the original snowstorm to hurricane – a force of nature all Floridians can relate to and following the latest rash of terrifying storms, rightfully fear.
The sets an uncanny likeness to any B-grade station with its control booth and flashing “on-air” sign above the sound-proofed door, a cheap desk and office chair and a poster of the kitten dangling perilously from a tree branch, the pad of one paw resting on the second “N” of its ironic directive to “Hang In There.”
Following an introduction by Players’ new executive director Suzanne Hudson-Smith, it was difficult to determine when the production was actually underway. A cast member tidying up, the soft chatter of the crowd, nervous throat clearing and a saxophone honking out a choppy rhythm in the background. We all knew something was happening. We just weren’t sure what.
Themes of uncertainty and confusion echoed through the show that clocked in just over an hour. Directed by Stephanie Natale Frus, Pontypool takes audiences on a frenetic journey in real time. As the impending hurricane builds outside the radio station, DJ Grant Mazzy played Terrence Scott is trying to find his footing on a local program dedicated to news, weather, traffic and punctuated by a little light jazz. He shares with listeners an odd encounter with a strange woman on his way to work. As he attempts to decipher the mornings’ happenings, reports begin to trickle in of other bizarre circumstances that quickly escalate into violence and mayhem.
The pacing of the show is such that it doesn’t allow time for one event to sink in before facing another and another. It’s a deliberate plot move that makes audiences feel as overwhelmed as the characters but it never really finds its footing.
There was a few moments of levity in the spaces between violent and unexplained episodes. Bryan Martins shines as man about town reporter Ken Loney, a strange little fellow who the station allows to deliver reports from his “news helicopter” which is actually his car. Martins never actually sets foot on the stage save for a brief appearance from a side door where he delivers a perfect enactment of news coverage during the hurricane. The remainder of his performance is done behind a screen, which creates a dark and surreal look at his character’s realization of the enormity of the situation and his descent into the madness of it all.
All the while, things are breaking down at the radio studio as the personalities struggle to come to terms with the outbreak of violence as one of their own falls victim to the virus. Laurel Ann played by Deena Davis spends the length of her stage time issuing guttural sounds from the control booth as the DJ and station manager Sydney Briar played by Amanda Jackson watches helplessly. Austin Kelly is delightfully unhinged in his portrayal of Dr. John Mendez, whose clinic served as ground zero for the outbreak. Dr. Mendez begins to unravel the nature of the virus before he is overcome.
Just as the characters – and the audience – begin to understand the circumstances, the fabric of the premise begins to unravel. Whether its a deterioration or a heightened organization as the play suggests, what was initially a clever plot devise to address the power of the spoken word overtakes the message. And what is left is a bloody stump of an otherwise entertaining concept. “Pontypool” ends just abruptly as it begins just like to the hurricanes that just skirt our coastline but fail to make landfall, leaving us wondering what all the fuss was about.