Any play bearing the imprimatur of local director Jon Tracy promises a fascinating, offbeat, existential, morally ambiguous commentary on human choice — and the ramifications thereof. Usually, Tracy transmits his messages through a familiar template, be it an updated version of some classic text, or a trope from Hollywood. We saw that in his all-white, antiseptic version of Antigone (called See How We Are), in his take on Orwell‘s Animal Farm (in which the humans were actually anthropomorphic animals), and even in his psychedelic production of the children’s story, Wizard of Oz. But Tracy tried a different approach for his latest project at SF Playhouse. Rather than poach a book from the literary canon, he chose to direct a new play by Allison Moore, which spoofs a B-movie genre that’s so lowbrow, it’s practically no-brow. Called Slasher, Moore’s play cannibalizes the form of a traditional horror flick and turns it into a discussion of female identity.
But to see the sociological aspects, we have to take it as an article of faith that some things can be exploitative and revelatory at the same time. The star of Slasher is a 21-year-old girl named Sheena, played by Tonya Glanz (of Killing My Lobster fame). Sheena lives in small-town Texas with her little sister Hildy (Melissa Quine) and mother Frances. (SF Playhouse cofounder Susi Damilano). A jaded, second-wave feminist, Frances has gotten to a point in life where anger has — in Tracy’s words — “literally, physically crippled her.” She transfers that frustration onto her daughters, in the guise of shielding them from an evil patriarchal society. A power struggle ensues. Sheena finally sees an escape hatch when slasher-film director Marc Hunter (Robert Parsons) comes to town, scouting for a new “final girl” to star in his latest bloodbath. Sheena takes the part. When Frances finds out, she goes into full war-path mode, and will stop at nothing to “save” her daughter. Sheena, in turn, will stop at nothing to be a new person. Rightness and political correctness get skewed. “Sheena pursues her independence by becoming an exploitation actress,” Tracy said. “The plot buttons all the way across.”
So does the irony. Slasher revels in the very clichés it subverts, throwing soccer moms together with slutty teens, Catholic school girls, and just about every human fetish that exists. (Actress Melanie Sliwka plays twelve different roles, which basically amounts to becoming a different exploited girl in a different ridiculous outfit for every scene.) In the midst of all those high-jinks, the actors manage to come up with full character arcs, Tracy said. Glanz has the look of someone who could be a perfect noir heroine, but she also understands comedy. Damilano creates an absolutely formidable version of Frances — she’s the type of woman’s rights advocate who would chew you up and spit you right back out. Quine is the third point in the triangle, and kind of a cipher. Nonetheless, she enhances the story with witty observations about a mother and sister who are so at odds that they can’t see past one another. Plotpoint for plotpoint, it’s a simple construct. But the concept is compelling. Slasher runs through June 5 at SF Playhouse (588 Sutter St., San Francisco). $30-$40. SFPlayhouse.org