Is life a game? Of course it is, and we're not just talking about the Game of Life, which is jammed in the back of your closet next to Parcheesi and Yahtzee. No, in real life you're given a game piece (your body) and invited to work your way through all the chutes and ladders until you arrive at the ultimate destination: death! Is that version a bit grim for you?
If so, there's a happier take on this extended practical joke we call mortality in A Killing Game, now at Cleveland Public Theatre. This 90-minute piece, devised by the Washington D.C.-based (and ironically not capitalized) dog & pony dc, blends improv comedy and audience participation (everybody go "whoosh!") to fashion an upbeat game show involving mass extermination from a mysterious infection. Sounds like a festival of black humor, right? Well, not so much.
The seven performers give it their best and there are certainly some smiles to be had. Plus, if you're the type of person who just loves jumping up to play charades during cocktails, or if you're a hyperactive 12-year-old, this play will definitely light your fire. For others, it may feel like you've been locked on a cruise ship with a gaggle of overly-caffeinated activity directors.
After a scripted opening featuring a medley of sunny '60s songs, the lollipops and rainbows disappear as everyone collapses and dies, including two blue-faced infant dolls. But not to worry, this is all in fun because everyone pops up and the game show begins. Hosted by Mr. Chrome (a not very Wink Martindale-like Jon Reynolds), the audience is asked to help discover the nature of the deadly disease that is afoot and find a cure.
Most of the audience does take part, to some degree, using the six game cards they've been given to help them participate in the proceedings. And the result is mixed, as it always is with audience participation, especially when texting and tweets are included. The game show is broken into several rounds. At the end of each round, the performers (and willing audience members) die, only to be reborn when the next round begins.
Other than Mr. Chrome, the other six actors are given color names such as Mr. Blue and Miss Pink (not Ms., this is happening before Gloria Steinem's mag). But it soon comes to mind that these characters aren't nearly as interesting, or even as death-obsessed, as another cohort of color-named characters — the guys in Reservoir Dogs. Indeed, in an effort to involve the audience at every turn, this visiting ensemble takes an intriguing, dark subject matter and makes it feel like you're sitting in a third-grade class, being led in making silly sounds and hand gestures as a group.
Director Colin K. Bills manages to keep the energy flowing for most of the show, although there are stretches where the pace slows. For example, deceleration occurs when the audience is separated into four teams with their own team names and team cheers (!). They then compete for "prizes," any ties being resolved by the team leaders playing rock/paper/scissors with each other.
Hey, weird and silly stuff is great — Monty Python, Mr. Show, Louis C.K., you name it. But the silly has to have overarching wit or an edge of some sort, especially when you're dragooning audience members, many of whom aren't all that entertaining, into your theatrical endeavor. You'd think that death would provide just such an edge for this show, but it feels bland.
Ultimately, it's hard not to compare A Killing Game to another participatory, devised theater play that visited CPT a couple years ago: the vastly superior Conni's Avant Garde Restaurant. While sharing many of the same production aspects, Conni's was continually stimulating, intellectually and viscerally, while taking major risks and stretching the boundaries. In contrast to the manic 3-D chess game that was Conni's, this show is a repetitive Dora the Explorer cartoon.
Through April 26 at Cleveland Public Theater, 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org.