Slash Friction


Show #49: Slasher, SF Playhouse, May 1.

Susi Damilano and Melissa Quine in Slasher. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

By Sam Hurwitt

A server at a Hooters clone called Busters (the cartoon beaver mascot is a particularly nice touch) is hired on the spot to star as the “last girl” in a very, very cheap horror movie—that is to say, the one who survives until the very end, and then either does or doesn’t. When word of this gets to her wheelchair-bound mother, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and rails against patriarchal conspiracies against women, she does her damnedest to get the entire production shut down by any means necessary.

That’s the setup for Slasher, a comedy by Allison Moore that debuted at last year’s Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville and is now enjoying a fast-paced regional premiere production directed by Jon Tracy at SF Playhouse.

The set at first looks deceptively simple—a black box lined with plastic tarps—but anyone familiar with artistic director Bill English’s sets would know that’s not all there is to it. Indeed after a screaming horror-movie opening that’s oddly reminiscent of the recent Safe House on the company’s second stage, a furnished living room seems to magically appear in a blackout. The magic was compromised by technical difficulties on opening night, when the latter set got stuck sliding in and out for much of the middle part of the play, which involves frequent scene changes. Such mishaps illustrate the potential downside of a clever set, but presumably were ironed out by the next performance.

Tonya Glanz has a good mix of hard-nosed stubbornness and young naïveté as aspiring scream queen Sheena, who’s awkwardly new to the screen world but confident that she’s not getting exploited because she negotiated hard for good money. She’s hilarious when performing scenes from the film within the play. Melissa Quine makes a spunky if underutilized sidekick as her little sister.

It’s hard to say whether Sheena’s mom Frances is supposed to have a point about how exploitative horror movies are. Certainly there’s some teensy outfits involved, even more so than Sheena’s Busters uniform (Tina Yeaton provides the genre-appropriate getups). But as portrayed by producing director Susi Damilano, Frances is such a pill-popping psychotically screeching harridan that you’d want to back away very slowly from any point she might get hold of. If Sheena is harshly dismissive of her mother’s condition, it’s easy to see why she’s fed up with her, particularly because high-school student Sheena is the sole breadwinner of the family. But there are a lot of nice touches in Damilano’s performance, whether she’s wheeling her mobility scooter in circles around the living room as she hollers at Sheena upstairs or crawling around on her belly in desperation or stealth.

Although a little awkward talking film aesthetics in his opening scene, Robert Parsons is increasingly amusing as his sleaziness comes out, with him shoehorning clumsy references to going up to his room into the conversation. Cole Alexander Smith has all the puppy-dog enthusiasm of a movie buff whose moment has come as assistant director Jody. All-purpose player Melanie Sliwka is particularly priceless as prim evangelical Christian Christi Garcia and whatever starlet, waitress, or news anchor the play calls for.

The show plays a lot with horror movie conventions, and the funniest parts are the bits of extreme horror-movie overacting when they’re shooting or rehearsing scenes from the movie.  Things do get bloody, but not as much as you might expect from the subject matter, particularly for audiences inured by shows such as Evil Dead Live and Thrillpeddlers’ Grand Guignol grotesqueries.

As often hysterical as it is, Moore’s story could stand to be fleshed out more. When two characters team up to do some damage, one of them doesn’t really become more of a player but nearly disappears from the play. There are many references to a past incident that made Frances hate Marc, but we never really find out what it was, and by the end we do really need a reason for her to have gone so thoroughly off the deep end. Similarly there’s clearly a reason that Marc has sworn off women under 30 and there’s something not quite right about him, but a little bit of back story would make the requisite twist ending more satisfying. That would help make it seem a little less like an 80-minute comic sketch and more like a cohesive play.

Through June 5
SF Playhouse
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

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