Monday, February 26, 2018

Review: The Vengeance Room is a Dish Best Served Cold

By Ed Malin

The Vengeance Room is a new play by swashbuckling wordsmith Michael Hagins, directed by Janelle Zapata of the dynamic Step1 Theatre Project.  You can catch this rare, bloody, offering as a prime cut in the 12th annual Frigid Festival.
Ever want to murder a bunch of people with whom you are randomly stuck in a room?  What if you were one of five people abducted and placed in a room with four weapons?  Why are you there?  No one knows.  Some kind of gas you breathed in the hall on your way in has wiped your memory of mostly everything except self-preservation.   In your pocket, you have a letter which identifies you as “D”, or “X”, or “G”, or “O”, or “M”.  You are now part of the best thing to come along since "Grindhouse," or maybe "Clue," or perhaps "Battle Royale."  You might say it beats any "Saw" you ever saw.  Unlike any other violent film that comes to mind (apologies in advance for any amnesia) this is a play, and you can join the audience in wild cheers, like gladiator groupies did back in the epoch.  There is certainly lots of jeering among the combatants.  But they all know not to let it get them down.  It’s better to be a twat or a cuckold than to be dead, right?
photo by Xavier Rodney
The action starts abruptly with the entrance of unwitting combatant D (Michael Mena).  He collapses, coughing, astonished at the bat, dagger, sword and gun lying on a table.  Might as well take the gun, the one without any bullets in it.  D is soon joined by the outgoing X (Ariel Leigh), who takes the sword.  Next we meet G (Ashley Lauren Rogers), trans-woman who is ready to rumble.  As a bonus, we get O (Kat Moreno) and M (Mateo Moreno), who may have been a couple back in the real world.  Well, now they’re all stuck together and we shall see if ignorance is bliss.
Sensing the opportunity to play a metaphorical game of tic-tac-toe, X and O immediately commence trying to take each other out.   Perhaps they also knew each other out there.  Perhaps a woman who is not in a relationship with M had her way with M.  No one dares say “Oh no you didn’t”, because, who knows what they did.  There is a spontaneous attempt by M to run away through the hall of badass gases.  The poor guy is almost not allowed back into the elimination chamber.  The five try their best to piece together their identities.  Their goal is clear: there can be only one.  They battle through many unexpected twists and peripeteia.   Maybe you’ll root for X, who is the loudest, or G, who is the quietest.  It was a very satisfying ending, though the suspense was killing me.
Director Janelle Zapata and her theatrical partner Jazmyn Arroyo have incubated another fascinating piece of theater.  Christina Tang’s lighting increases the fear factor substantially. Michael Hagins, who does a lot of sword things in general, has written and fight choreographed a play where all the weapons count.  I move that horror films should also be no longer than 45 minutes.  The cast, many of whom are veterans of Step1, keep the action moving at a thoroughly enjoyable speed.