By Daniel Skora
For much of the first half of the previous century, you could acquire at the local drug store or newsstand for your very own reading pleasure 128 pages of non-literary excitement. The magazines that contained those 128 pages, available for the cost of but a few coins, were called Pulps because of the cheap paper stock they were printed on. They were written mostly by hacks who churned out enormous quantities of words and stories to fill the nearly 150 different titles that were available during the heyday of the pulps.
Williamston Theatre is opening its 2016/17 Eleventh Anniversary Season with “Pulp”, Joseph Zettelmaier’s new play that revolves around a private detective straight out of the film noir mold and four genre writers who write for the pulps. The play takes place in Los Angeles in the year 1933, the glory days of those magazines.
There’s been a murder, of course, and that would be Bernard Walcott, a literary agent for what’s now become his diminishing pack of pulp fiction writers. Walcott’s murder was a particularly grizzly one; his chest was crushed, his rib cage split open, and his still beating heart yanked from his body. Of the four authors remaining in his stable of writers, each wrote in a different genre, all had motive, and opportunity, and they’re all now considered suspects. Walter Cranston-Smith (Joe Bailey) is a detective/mystery writer, an odd sort given to doing hands-on research for his crime stories by running around disguised as a masked caped crusader. Bradley Rayburn (Aral Gribble) writes science fiction, only to him it isn’t fiction at all. R.A. Lyncroft (Mark Colson) writes in the horror genre, and if he ever finds himself lacking in inspiration, he need only to look in a mirror to find it starring back at him. Desiree St. Clair (Alysia Kolascz), or at least that’s what she calls herself, is the story’s requisite femme fatale. She’s a romance writer and with her curves, mystery and sensual allure, she’s probably her own best story. Even before the body of the deceased has gone completely cold, Desiree shows up at the office of Frank Ellery (John Lepard), a two-bit no-nonsense detective who keeps a gun shouldered in his holster and a whiskey bottle stashed in his desk. Desiree wants to hire Frank to find Bernard’s killer and in the process clear her name. What happens next is pretty much what can be expected. Ellery takes the case along with the lady that comes with it. He has a go at all the suspects, suffering a few twists and turns along the way until the murderer is finally revealed.
Williamston’s production nicely blends several theatrical disciplines to create an interesting and often times exciting show. Tony Caselli directs the production and has cast well the five actors who appear in the show. With tinted hair parted against the grain and a staccato tough guy delivery, Lepard looks and sounds like every gumshoe who ever prowled the midnight pavement. Gribble, as the science fiction writer, undergoes an astonishing transformation in age, adding some 60 years to his appearance and becoming a tired old man after engaging in some exhaustive time travel. Kolascz is lovely and inviting as Desiree.
The set, by Matthew Imhoff, is a bare-bones setup with a beat-up desk and a sofa ready-made for in-house trysts. But the set also has an interesting arched brick background fronting four original painted fabric posters also by Imhoff, one for each of the featured genres and available for purchase after the show’s run is completed. Costume design is by Elspeth Williams, lighting by Shannon Schweitzer, and sound courtesy of Julia Garlotte. There’s even a fight coordinator, which brings us to the topic of Zettlemaier’s script. Film noir and the pulps may seem like campy amusements in the digital age, but they were respectable forms of entertainment back when. The playwright certainly did his research and created a decent framework for the story, and it shouldn’t have been allowed to slip into silliness.
“Pulp” runs through October 23rd. Tickets can be purchased by phone Tuesday through Friday from Noon to 6:00p.m., by calling 517.655.7469, by visiting the Williamston box office, or ordered online up until 24 hours prior to the performance by going online at www.williamstontheatre.org. Williamston Theatre is located at 122 S. Putnam Road in downtown Williamston. Take I-96 west and get off at Exit 117.
Reviewer’s note: It was good to see the playwright give a backhanded shout out of sorts to the best horror writer (actually Weird Fiction is more correct) of the 20th century. R.A. Lyncroft is a like-sounding pseudonym for H.P. (Howard Phillips) Lovecraft, who wrote almost exclusively for the pulps. Though Lovecraft spent the whole of his life in New England, his style harkened back to the literary manners of England, and if his stories didn’t exactly scare the bejesus out of his readers, he left them in a mood of apprehension and the believability that lurking beneath the shadows of existence were creatures of the most unholy substance, the Old Ones, who lay dormant but never-the-less remained the keepers of our planet. If you might have seen a young man on UofM’s campus some time back in the 70’s preparing for novels class with a Hardy or a Joyce or a Lawrence in his lap but with a Lovecraft story tucked secretly inside, that might have been me. Some late night, with the wind howling through the rafters and a frightful cold clawing at the windowpanes, sit back in your favorite easy chair and give Lovecraft a try. He’s out of copyright and available free on the internet.