Sacred Fools is hardly the first to have recognized the movie monster as an avatar for the real-life anxieties that boil beneath the surface of our collective imagination. But it may come as some surprise to students of creature horror to learn that the mother of all coping responses to what Susan Sontag once called the “unassimilable terrors that infect [our] consciousness” is 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
Or so insists Akuma-shin, Kenley Smith’s outlandishly clever if sometimes wincingly on-the-nose Godzilla homage, now getting its world premiere on the Fools’ Broadwater Main Stage. Why the Americanization of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 kaiju classic, Gojira, should be held up as a primary palimpsest for the rampaging horrors of post-industrial capitalism is just one of the mysteries driving a play that ricochets between parodic mockumentary, whimsical alternative history, allusive movie-geek trivia game and moody metaphysical thriller.
And if the slipperiest of those questions is over what kind of beast is Akuma-shin (it literally translates as “demon-god”), that ambiguity provides much of the action’s poetic lift, beginning with the cancer-ravaged and mutilated figure of Billy Childers (Eddie Goines), luridly sporting prosthetic hooks where he once had arms. “I saw the monster,” he hoarsely croaks in what will be a recurring refrain over the evening by eyewitnesses, who are ultimately able to provide little in the way of clear description or documented proof of the creature’s existence. Akuma-shin apparently cannot be photographed and is known only by the apocalyptic devastation that it leaves in its Earth-shaking wake.
The only area of consensus seems to be that in 1956, Tokyo and 2 million of its residents perished in a fiery, radioactive conflagration that has gone down in history as “the incident.” But the lack of clear-cut, objective evidence also makes the event a political football that, 20 years later, is still being kicked around by TV pundits on programs like the 1976 PBS special that frames the play. Hosted by Nancy Dickerson (Stasha Surdyke), TV personalities Dr. Joyce Brothers (Libby Baker) and monster denier William F. Buckley Jr. (David Wilcox in an uncanny impersonation) debate Akuma-shim’s existence with the paraplegic survivor/radio reporter Mason (Tony DeCarlo) and a trio of celebrity literati promoting their own Akuma-shin books: Truman Capote (Amir Levi), Norman Mailer (Paul Parducci) and Yukio Mishima (Reuben Uy).
Much of the fun — as well as the meaning — comes from the ways in which the script mischievously teases out the alternate trajectories of the celebrated novelists as well as the surprise fates of the beloved 20th-century military and political figures that make brief cameo appearances in the story. For example, Mishima no longer takes his own life after failing to foment a 1970 right-wing putsch (although seppuku is still very much on his mind), and if the monster has elbowed aside the Kennedys, that's a good thing for Lee Harvey Oswald (a convincing Adam Burch) and Mary Jo Kopechne.
But the dramatic fireworks come in the riveting multiple flashbacks of the monster encounters that play out in the wings of designer Joe Jordan’s simple, shoji-paneled set. The best feature DeCarlo, Goines and Uy as they confront their own demons during a live broadcast of “the most famous 15 seconds in radio,” a scene that somehow visually quotes Honda but torques it with the psychological horror of the unseen. Director Scott Leggett weaves together stylish video projections (by editor Allison Faith Sulock, graphics designer Curt Bonnem and animator Emily Bolka), spectacular lighting effects (by Matt Richter) and searing, high-decibel sound (Jaime Robledo) to theatrically suggest what the production cannot literally show — the monumental, pulse-pounding physical presence of Akuma-shin.
Had it only stopped there, Akuma-shin would have been a shoe-in for whatever acclaim 99-seat theater has to shower on cinematically savvy coups des théâtre. But Smith proves fatally determined to close off each of the text’s tantalizing gaps between language and meaning, story and emotion, signifier and signified — all the spaces where stage poetry lives and breathes. “Every choice that impacts our society — politically, militarily — harbors a monster at its core,” Dr. Joyce spells out early in the play. A version of that moral, along with several seat-squirming images of America’s more recent collective traumas, is paraphrased by each character long past the point at which the mystery of Akuma-shin has been smothered into a dead certainty.
Sacred Fools, Broadwater Main Stage, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood; through April 28. Sacredfools.org.
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter: