Dress Sartre up in hipster threads and the crowds will come.
Nobody knows this better than Matthew Schultz, writer and director of The Ice Cream Social Disease, an existentially harrowing two-act play that is debuting this week to receptive audiences at the LIDA Project Experimental Theatre in Denver.
The play, which is produced by Schultz's own Pangaea Theatre Company, revolves around a cast of five characters who have sought shelter in an abandoned drive-in movie theater following the outbreak of a mysterious plague that is "rapidly destroying the human race."
Schultz's plot, which recalls both Camus' The Plague and the claustrophobic dysfunction of Sartre's No Exit, details the interpersonal tensions that arise among a group of strangers who are collectively subjected to conditions threatening their survival.
"The trick to pulling off this kind of theater is to make the audience feel as if they are part of the dilemma on stage," says Schultz, who work-shopped Ice Cream last spring at the University of Colorado in Denver to sold-out audiences.
Even when Schultz's dialogue occasionally falls flat, the play's sexy, hip cast keeps Ice Cream afloat by infusing lengthy existential platitudes with an ironic, youthful irreverence. Sara Rae Downey, in the role of Holly, embodies youthful idealism stifled by circumstances out of her control. Downey perfectly encapsulates the frustrating ambiguity of her character's situation, at one point remarking: "Just quit being scared, we don't have much of a choice about being here."
To the extent that Schultz's play aspires to offer us meta-theatrical commentary, it succeeds in seamlessly immersing the audience into its somber, funereal pace. The fact that Ice Cream breaks the fourth wall and operates "outside itself" is especially effective given that most of the audience members resemble the characters on stage, both in age and dress -- a coincidence not lost on Schwartz.
"The experimental aspect of this play is the way that the audience is drawn into the story and faced with some of the same choices as the main characters," says Schultz. "College-aged kids have really responded to this. There's something about this narrative that mirrors our own lives in the age of terror."
The heavy-handed themes may seem a bit portentous for some, but Schultz insists that the play is not intended as a proselytizing mechanism for any particular worldview. "We aren't trying to answer all the questions; we're just posing a question to the audience and ourselves: Is it possible to find love, human connections or beauty in our current world situation?" he asks.
Perhaps more striking than the overwhelmingly positive response so far afforded to Schultz's play is the growing preference for experimentalism in general, within the local indie theater community. Ice Cream follows in the wake of James Germain's production The Shape of Things, a post-modern, meta-theatrical piece that played to sold-out audiences at CU-Colorado Springs last month.
"I think there is a real thirst for authenticity in theater and for challenging audiences with new, interesting works," says Schultz. "This play begins with the assumption that works of art are like people," he continues. "They're not clear cut -- good or bad, it's up the audience to choose."
Ice Cream is a bold expression of philosophical ideas that are as symptomatic of our own age as they were of the World War II-era that birthed them. At times, bordering closely upon the absurd, the play not only challenges the role of theater, but also ultimately reinforces the importance of art. Schultz and company hope it will leave you screaming for more.
-- Joe Kuzma
The Ice Cream Social Disease
LIDA Project Experimental Theatre, 2180 Stout St., Denver
Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., through Jan. 22
Call 303/282-0466 for reservations and information.