Amazingly, a Good — and Frightening — SF Play

Any theories on why science-fiction theater tends to be so lame? Does the naturalism of the stage thwart suspension of disbelief? In any case, a good one, called The Assember Dilator, seems to've just finished brewing in the East Village.

According to this review in The L Magazine, the play is "without question some of the most frightening live theater around." (It closed recently at Performance Space 122 and appeared briefly at St. Mark's Church.)

The fear felt was two-toned: it was the immediate type of knee-jerk bodily reaction to suspense and darkness that is palpable within a performance space (or haunted house), but also the less apparent but no less jarring terror that stays with you and follows you as you leave the performance. That paranoia comes from the subject material of the play, whose dark future implications could wake you up three or four nights later because you wonder if it might not all come true.

The website for 31Down, the company that developed Dilator, describes the piece as "a sonic meltdown of science fiction and perversion focused on the development of x-ray vision."

The play stars "an increasingly giddy and insane" Ryan Holsopple, who also did the sound design, as Dr. Assembler, who's developed a new medicine, the Assembler Dilator, but has no funding to run clinical trials — so he tests it secretly on himself and his nurse (Caitlin McDonough-Thayer). The medicine gives you X-ray vision — Dr. Assembler starts being able to see the nurse's panties — but also causes bizarre hallucinations which lurch both participants towards madness. Pulsating strobe lights disorient the audience and illuminate the actors' sweat-soaked faces. As the reviewer writes:

The nurse ... becomes the sex-object of the play as well the representation of the paranoid addict. Dr. Assember idolizes her, wide eyed, as well as tests his drug on her, effectively owning her, and the audience can see the excitement she feels to be participating in such "ground-breaking" research. The struggle to assume power in the play degrades into a need for the drug and nothing else. The third actor in the play is the sound that emanates from gigantic speakers beneath the bleachers and many other high wattage cones throughout the space. Every reverberation can be felt, every scream and rumble.

The most lasting scare in the piece (spoilers!) and most chilling moment is the Nurse's short monologue at the end of the play (this, even after Dr. Assember has pulled an Oedipus Rex and is wearing bloody underwear on his head) as she introduces the audience to the research facility, all the wonderful things they are doing, all the great advances to human health they are working on, even as she is dropping more and more of the Assember Dilator into her eyes, eventually dunking her head in a bucket of the stuff and bathing in it.

Out here on the West Coast, we've not seen it yet. But all that sounds real good to us. Is it time for this thing to travel?

Photo courtest 31Down/Paula Court