Chicago Theater Review: PONTYPOOL (Strawdog Theatre Company)

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by Zach Freeman on October 15, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Over a decade ago, author Tony Burgess penned the experimental novel Pontypool Changes Everything, which featured what could be called “zombies” but focused more on semiotics in a highly stylized and sometimes off-putting way. A few years ago, Burgess adapted that novel into a screenplay for the well-received film Pontypool, which heightened the zombie angle and reduced the focus on language, with the unfortunate result that the cause and spread of the disease was rendered a bit unclear. In this third incarnation, let’s call it “stage” Pontypool, Burgess has adapted the story for the theater, and finally found the right mix: he has seamlessly merged the the subtle (and not-so-subtle) horrors of the zombie genre with a satirical commentary on how we use language. All in 60 minutes and with only four characters.

Zach Freeman’s Stage and Cinema review of PONTYPOOL at Strawdog Theatre Company’s Hugen Hall in ChicagoThis Midwest premiere, presented in Strawdog Theatre’s intimate and unassuming Hugen Hall, follows shock jock Grant Mazzy (a perfectly cast Jamie Vann), recently fired from a “big city” market because of his “take no prisoners” style. He is now making a go of it as a morning host on a radio station in the small town of Pontypool, Illinois. The biggest news is the cold, snowy weather and Honey the Cat’s disappearance – that is, until reports start coming in of a violent riot at the office of Dr. Jon Mendez (played with wild gusto by Carmine Grisolia). Suddenly Mazzy and his coworkers, Sydney (Elizabeth Dowling) and Laurel Ann (Morgan Gire, standing in for Nikki Klix), find themselves in the midst of a quickly spreading epidemic that is transmitted not through infected bites but through infected words.

Zach Freeman’s Stage and Cinema review of PONTYPOOL at Strawdog Theatre Company’s Hugen Hall in ChicagoThe script rolls along smoothly (as long as you buy into the idea that everyone in this town seems to listen to this radio station) and the acting is consistently reliable, even as the madness surrounding the characters escalates. The authentic presentation helps to draw out the underlying satire that picks apart the 24-hour news cycle, the spreading of nonsensical concepts, and the use of language for communication. Director Anderson Lawfer has kept the thrills in place, but he never allows this show to take itself too seriously.

Zach Freeman’s Stage and Cinema review of PONTYPOOL at Strawdog Theatre Company’s Hugen Hall in ChicagoThe straightforward set (designed by Grisolia, pulling double-duty) keeps the action close at hand and captures the minutiae of a radio studio while also adding a few inside jokes (magnetic letters spell out “SHUT UP OR DIE” – the catchphrase from the movie – on the recording booth door). In an especially inspired music choice (sound design by Gregor Mortis), a muzak version of Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” plays on repeat through many of the most unnerving moments. The violence is brutal and bloody and the comedy is unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable. And it’s all over in an hour. What more could you want from a horror show?

photos by Tom McGrath

Strawdog Theatre Company’s Hugen Hall
scheduled to end on November 4, 2012
for tickets, call 773.528.9696 or visit

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