Comedy, the cliché goes, is pain plus time. ImprovBoston’s Double Feature of one-act plays, “Blood Farm!” and “The Red Stare” suggest comedy is also hysteria, paranoia and terror plus time. Both set their action decades ago.
“The Red Stare,” by comedian and Emerson College student Ryan Douglass, is a cautionary tale about those insidious commies. In “Blood Farm,” Matthew Mosher, an educator at Northeastern University, Emerson College and Bridgewater State College and longtime ImprovBoston collaborator, presents “a Depression-era mystery with cocktail-swilling detectives, a string of disappearances and a herd of man-eating cows.”
The retro settings — suggested by Mosher, who also directs — lets audiences see through the follies of the past. And that gives the writers a chance to comment on the lunacies of today.
Douglass’ play is a reminder that, despite the Cold War long being over, we’re living through another red scare.
“The idea is that this is a film made in 1958 or 1957 showing the audience what could go wrong in five years if they let the communists take command,” Douglass said. “I didn’t plan to take anything from what was going on today, in current events or in my life, but all of a sudden I was taking things from my high school years in Connecticut and some of the things that annoyed me in that little rural town I lived in … Everyone’s all mad about Obama, and in Connecticut, which is a blue state.
“You get out to those rural parts and you get a lot of people who vote Republican and think the other side is completely socialist,” he said. “At the time I was writing this, everyone was calling Obama ‘Hitler.’”
Under the influence of actual red scare films found on YouTube, Douglass crafted a tale with chilling forebodings of universal health care (the hero is horrified, of course, to see it’s been instituted in small-town America in the early 1960s) and Leninist robots. In fact, a robot Lenin.
“We kind of go back to the innocence of that time, like, ‘Oh, this is something you were really scared of, this is the big thing?’” Douglass said.
Mosher’s mystery comes from different source material — old “Shadow” radio broadcasts, for instance, with the hero skulking through creepy situations and taking on snarling, feral dogs — and is less direct in confronting watchers with modern contradictions. But it’s almost unavoidable. With man-eating cows glowering on stage, a knowing laugh about “mad cows” and the safety of beef is inevitable.
ImprovBoston, all improvisational and sketch comedy while in Inman Square, is adding more scripted work with its move to more and larger stages in Central Square, Mosher said. He wrote the first full-length play performed at ImprovBoston, last year’s “Atreus, Inc.,” and led the process during the past summer of calling for writers who could expand on, without repeating, the feel of his “Blood Farm!,” winnowing the field to three, then working with them to produce performable works.
“We didn’t want to retread what ‘Grindhouse’ had done,” Mosher said, referring to the two-part movie in which Quentin Tarantino and others paid homage to the classically bad, cheap but fun action films of the 1970s.
The writers, and then actors, took to their task, rewriting and rehearsing diligently. “The team works very well together. It was very collaborative. I think we’ve got writers who are comfortable with us making adjustments in the rehearsal process. And partly they knew that was going to happen in the beginning when they signed on, but also because there is more improv experience there. They don’t view a hard line between the writing and rehearsing process, and so they’re comfortable with saying, ‘Well, here’s a draft we’re going to start with … but we’re going to let the actors play around with it a bit.’”
Good casting also allowed writers to be comfortable in the process. “I think we got some really solid actors. The whole cast is great,” Mosher said.
Douglass remembers cast member Ben Scurria telling him, “I think this scene should be changed.” Douglass’ reaction: “I think that makes a lot of sense. The first time, I was, ‘Oh, man, I guess I wasn’t as careful as I thought I was revising this.’ But you know what, it does make sense.” The change was made, and it’s the scene audience will see at the Double Feature.
Response has been good. ImprovBoston’s main stage seats were about two-thirds full at the premiere, mainly with people new to the theater. Especially with publicity gearing up slowly, that’s a very good sign.
“I think people will have fun,” Mosher said. “We try to do service to the spectacle of the camp of the genre we’re working in, but not in a way that gets in the way of the story.”
“The Red Stare” and “Blood Farm” play Fridays at 8 p.m. through January and will be replaced by two other one-act plays when Double Feature continues next month. The theater is in Central Square at 40 Prospect St. Call (617) 576-1253 or click here.