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COVID-19 has shut down live theater in the DMV and beyond, but some local theater-makers are brainstorming how to use technology to present shows as their audiences stay at home. Podcasting may be the answer: Just a month before Flying V Theatre’s fall short play anthology Crystal Creek Motel was staged at the Silver Spring Black Box, the company released the first audio play in their nine-episode, highly bingeable podcast anthology Paperless Pulp.
Paperless Pulp takes its name from the popular fiction magazines of the early 20th century. Printed on the cheapest grade of paper, they were devoted to the genres at which the literati of the time sneered: science fiction, crime, suspense, Westerns, and “weird fiction”––often with protagonists defined by obsessions or distorted senses of self. Flying V’s artistic director Jason Schlafstein directs every episode, relying on a rotating cast of actors drawn from the company.
The anthology series is framed by introductions and reflections from its host, Ivan the Archivist (the semi-anagrammatical alter ego of Navid Azeez, who also composes the music and provides sound design for several episodes). Ivan broadcasts from the abandoned studios of WFVR, where he is the sole resident in the post-apocalyptic year of 2184. Ivan hasn’t seen another human in more than eight years, and he regularly ventures into the ravaged landscape of acid lakes, mutant squirrels, and plasma storms in his search of old tapes, hard drives, and security camera footage from which he recovers the stories that form each week’s entertainment. Audiences are left wondering if Ivan’s finds hint at just what led to “the day we do not discuss.”
Contributing three out of the nine episodes of the anthology’s season, Seamus Sullivan is the series’ most prolific dramatist. His season opener, “RE: OBLIVION,” is an office satire in which co-workers are so consumed by the banality of their workplace, and so set at odds with one another by their manager, that they can react with neither horror nor madness when a Lovecraftian eldritch abomination appears in the supply room. Sullivan’s second outing in the series, “Horn of Bone and Silver,” features an unnamed podcaster (Regina Aquino), an obsessive bibliophile ever on the hunt for out-of-print genre novels. Her enthusiasm for her latest discovery, an early-’70s novel set in the fairy kingdom of Night Glade, leads to it being reissued by the publisher she works for at her day job. But she falls into severe depression upon discovering that in the even harder-to-find sequel, the heroine of the first novel has essentially become a villainess.
However, Sullivan’s writing is at both its most heartfelt and funniest in the season closer, “Valkyrie at the Roller Disco,” named for the New Pornographers’ song. It’s a romantic two-hander between Hillevi (Blair Bowers), a 1,009-year-old winged warrior of Norse mythology and Beth-from-Above, a roller derby jammer and eighth grade English teacher, named Bridget (Megan Reichelt). The story follows the tradition of classic Marvel Comics, in which superheroics are often an allegory for navigating adulthood—intergenerational dating, in this case. Here, one partner may have nobility and wisdom, but doesn’t understand dating apps, streaming television, or open relationships, and the other is vibrant, intelligent, and adventurous, but afraid of commitment.
In “Blood, Sweat and Tapsilog,” Kyle Encinas uses the podcast-within-a-podcast concept to update the sort of lurid stories found in 19th century penny dreadfuls for the 21st century. Podcast host Jamie (Justine Moral) follows the story of Francis Ocampo (Aquino), a talented Filipina American chef whose borderline personality disorder leads to a mental breakdown under the stresses of the restaurant business, racist notions of “fine dining,” and the pressure cooker of a live-streamed competitive cooking show called The Last Bite and its sadistic panelist Greg Angeles (a thinly veiled caricature of Gordon Ramsey voiced by Zachary Fernebok).
Aficionados of classic science fiction will be intrigued by the tight storytelling of Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri‘s “Equinox,” the tale of Tim (James Flanagan), whose life-long obsession with time travel is rooted in a childhood tragedy he wants to set right. Petri tells the story through voicemails and audio diaries that document how Tim’s experiments result in myriad divergent timelines, each with its own tragedy substituting the one Tim’s last trip meant to correct. Each disappearance into the past leaves consequences for the family members and girlfriend Tim leaves behind in the many worlds he creates and subsequently departs.
Augie Praley gives a more farcical treatment to the same themes in “The Sorrows of Another Werther.” Inventor William Werther, motivated by spite toward his ex-wife and her second husband, travels the multiverse, collecting a gang of other Werthers (all voiced by Zachary Fernebok), including a basement dwelling esports Werther, early modern human Werther, and post-human uploaded consciousness Werther, in a quest for the best possible universe—where there may be a Werther who is actually happy with his life. Praley’s other contribution, “Dear Fred Durst,” is a simpler affair: A 12-step group meeting for rageaholics whose attendees have all written letters to their shared childhood hero, Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, provides the company a chance to show off their comedic chops.
Serena Berman‘s “Apocalypse Air BnB” is a timely story featuring a shelter-in-place meet-cute between chainsaw-wielding zombie hunter Bernadette (Michelle Polera) and, given that civilization has collapsed, her unusually exuberant Airbnb host, Clyde (Flanagan) who is trying to maintain normality and hospitality.
Each episode ranges anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes long, enough time to explore a story while also making sure the slighter tales don’t overstay their welcome. With such a range of genres represented, it’s perfect for binge-listening. It’s also not the only online content Flying V offers: Their four-show season of pro-wrestling is already available, and a new podcast, Audio Awesome, recently debuted its first episode. A second season of Paperless Pulp is scheduled to drop in the fall.
Paperless Pulp is available at flyingvtheatre.com.
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