The Killing Game

defunkt theatre at the Back Door, 4319 SE Hawthorne, 993-9062, Thurs-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm, through Feb 26, $10-15

Choosing Presidential Inauguration Day to inaugurate the defunkt theatre company's new season was probably not coincidental. Choosing Eugene Ionesco's The Killing Game as the inaugural play probably wasn't either. Parallels between George W's dawning-of-the-apocalypse second term and Ionesco's plague that ravages an isolated city can be drawn pretty quickly.

The premise is simple: folks start dropping, people wig out. The first scene alone, in which the mysterious epidemic first strikes, claims seven lives. Throughout the ensuing numerous short scenes (montage-style), Ionesco offers not just a high body count, but also timely (even for 1970, the play's publication date) observations on mass hysteria, elitism, fear, and government control.

Knowing what they are capable of, I hesitate to criticize defunkt theatre. Their Cloud 9, for instance, was one of the best productions I've seen in Portland. They took a challenging script and, with minimal sets, produced a winner. Their Killing Game--arguably even more challenging due to its attempts to succinctly depict onstage an entire population under lunatic duress--however, loses its effectiveness after about 20 minutes, right when the play becomes engrossing. It feels like a talented troupe of actors doing an action-packed side project when, in fact, they're really invested in talky Albee plays like A Delicate Balance. The defunkt troupe is a talented group, but their hearts aren't in this one.

I'm reminded of a radio analysis I heard of W's inauguration speech, in which a historian deconstructed his speaking style, noting that his misplaced emphasis on certain words weakened their impact. It seems, with his busy schedule, W doesn't have time to really think about what he's saying. He's a talented actor concerned more with delivery than meaning. Perhaps fittingly in this dark inaugural month, defunkt's cast has followed suit, reciting the wonderful words of The Killing Game without considering the intent behind them. And after a while, watching even the best actors merely deliver words (no matter how riveting) becomes as boring (though not nearly as nauseating, mind you) as a George W speech.