Impact Theatre is known as the kind of company that puts on Shakespeare productions, but with machine guns as props. "We take a grittier approach to whatever the public deems to be a sacred piece of text," said former associate artistic director Desdemona Chiang. So when longtime Impact playwright Steve Yockey approached artistic director Melissa Hillman last year with the idea of exploring the theme of violence in a series of plays, it seemed like a perfect fit for the Berkeley-based theater company.
Yockey reached out to eight playwrights and told them the concept. "Violence as entertainment. That's all they got," said Chiang, who is also the series' director. The playwrights — Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Prince Gomolvilas, Declan Greene, Lauren Gunderson, Dave Holstein, JC Lee, Ross Maxwell, Lauren Yee, and Yockey — have a wide range of professional experiences, including writing television scripts and musicals, and each contributed a unique perspective on the theme. For example, Yockey's play, Bedtime, is an alternative take on the slasher subgenre. "Usually the sexy, hot girl is the one that gets killed in the first five minutes," said Chiang. But Yockey's play turns that idea on its head by having the "damsel in distress" who is targeted by a psychopathic serial killer take drastic measures to kill him herself.
Other plays offer a humorous take on violence. In Don't Turn Around by Ross Maxwell, a zombie apocalypse forces a couple to flee to the mall and seek shelter in a janitor's closet. While they hide out, their ten-year-long relationship begins to unravel when the man makes an unexpected revelation.
The title of the series, Bread and Circuses, is a reference to the time during the Roman Empire when politicians maintained power by manipulating peasants with cheap food and entertainment. Chiang sees that concept playing out in contemporary society as well, but with social media in the role of the distractor. "There's so much social pollution out there," she said. "The masses are pleasantly distracted from so many horrible things that are going on."
The nine short plays, which will be performed at La Val's Subterranean (1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley), do not moralize about violence, but rather raise questions about what we are afraid of and why, making connections between horror movies and issues like feminism and class. Chiang wants audience members to examine "how we manage to desensitize ourselves to certain types of violence, but not other types," she said. While she wants each play to be entertaining, she hopes that audiences think about why they find what's happening on stage to be funny, titillating, or thrilling.
Chiang is also excited about the opportunity to scare a theater audience. Whereas in a movie theater you can be "scared shitless," she said, "when was the last time you were really afraid watching live theater?" She hopes that the plays will get people's hearts racing. "If I can do that with this production, something will be achieved."
Preview shows on Thursday and Friday, Feb. 27-28. 8 p.m., $10. Play runs through April 6. $15-$25. ImpactTheatre.comEditor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled Steve Yockey's last name. This version has been corrected.