OK, the title may be a bit of exaggeration. But it's not much of one. See, writing a novel is something of a marathon, and on some level, you don't know if you can do it until you do it. Before I did manage write a novel, though, I did Flame Failure, and on a lot of levels, it was a crucial learning experience.
Flame Failure: The Silent War was a unique theatre experience, “spinning a tale of industrial espionage in serial fashion” according to the Austin Chronicle. Every month, for twelve months, we put on a short play (usually 40-50 minutes), late night in the downstairs part of the now-defunct Public Domain Theatre. From May of ’97 to April of ’98, Flame Failure was my life. It remains to this day the single biggest, hardest, most nerve-wracking project I’ve ever been a part of.
It was a hair-raising, mind numbing, soul-sucking experience, one which I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Flame Failure: The Silent War, was the brainchild of Dan Bonfitto, who wrote and directed every episode. Joined by myself (producer, sound designer), Marco Noyola (set, costume and prop designer) and David Sebastian Boone (light designer), we set forth to create this epic theatre event on no budget whatsoever. When I say “no budget”, I’m not speaking metaphorically. This show was paid for entirely out-of-pocket by the four of us. Given the circumstances of putting up, essentially, twelve different original shows over the course of a year on no money, it’s a wonder we didn’t go completely insane. The whole thing was a crash-course in How To Do Theatre On The Fly.
And when I say it “was my life”, I’m not exaggerating. Not only was I somehow involved in every episode, usually in multiple capacities, but my home was as well. The House on Greenlawn was production headquarters and rehearsal space. Of the four guys who lived there, the one LEAST involved was Dave, who played Doc Recon. Every non-bedroom space (and probably some bedroom space as well) was used for the show in some way.
One big obstacle in the process was the scripts. In that they didn’t exist. When Dan first pitched the project to us, he had the whole thing outlined, episode-to-episode, and a rough idea of the characters. But no actual scripts. When we were holding auditions, the first two were done and the third was well underway, but as production ground on, the writing kept getting more and more behind. Episode Twelve was finished on the morning of the first rehearsal for it, a scant nine days before it was to premiere.
Which was frustrating, to say the least, but an interesting aspect was how story aspects evolved due to the actors behind the characters. The character of Caio blossomed from a minor thug to a key player, in no small part due to Alvin’s gung-ho, extreme team player attitude. Another character, conversely, got significantly marginalized because the actress was, shall we say, less than gung-ho in her attitude.
What was it about? Well, that’s a complicated question. The Austin Chronicle wrote this when we were awarded "Best Theatrical Page Turner": “Forget about The X-Files. Return all of your books on cults. Instead, go to Flame Failure, an industrial thriller in 12 episodes running through April of 1998. The Gallery at The Public Domain has been transformed into a laboratory for Dan Bonfitto's plots, ripped out of comic books and conspiracy theories, and staged by the DownStage Players with bold, highly theatrical elements that have been simplistically but dynamically implemented. The occasionally rough edges simply add to its sleazy but cerebral charm.” Doesn’t quite answer the question, though?
Here's the breakdown:
Episode 01: Firebox (May 1997)
Cast: Drake (Walter Clark), Wormwood (Marshall Ryan Maresca)
Synopsis: A mysterious man (Drake) is tied up and left to die in the firebox of a boiler. As revealed to him by his unlucky companion, a homeless man named Arthur Wood (who was hiding in the firebox and got trapped in there with him), very shortly the flame will light, filling the room with fire and killing them both. Their only chance to survive is if the boiler has a flame failure. Drake tries to get Arthur to untie him, but Arthur doesn't trust Drake, in no small part to Drake's tendency to occasionally scream, speak in a strange, all-knowing voice, and then forget all about it. After some convoluted back-and-forth, Drake eventually reveals that he was involved in a conspiracy involving a secret government agency, a crime syndicate and a techno-cult, all of whom are looking for a book, which Drake-- who was at least a triple-agent, betraying all of them-- was the last one to have. What makes the book so special? Drake can't remember, but the other part of Drake seems to know everything, including that Arthur is really Wormwood, con-man on retainer for Anaconda, the head of the syndicate. He tells Wormwood that the book is "hidden in plain sight" at Wagner's Books. When Drake reverts to "normal", Wormwood clubs him over the head and is let out of the box. The "other" Drake comes to and puts his head in the line of the flame jet, which clicks on right as it goes to blackout.
Notes: This one was the most complicated, set-wise. The Firebox was a box that we built, 8'x8'x5', lifted two feet off the ground, with the lighting done from underneath, and parts of the side of the box cut-away for the audience to see us. It was a potent experience as an actor-- first being in a one-on-one show, just me and Walter (who, at that stage of the game, was terrific to work with), and second, being confined to such a limited space. Also, since the show started with just voices in black-out, no lights at all until Wormwood turned on a flashlight, Dan decided that each episode should start with a scene in total darkness- a conceit that sometimes didn't work all that well. The show also ended in darkness except for a single tiny red light-- the Flame Failure indicator in this case-- but that became a lighting conceit that I rather liked. Each episode ended with that single red light, and it was always something of a fun challenge to incorporate it into the set somehow. One thing to note-- I was not originally going to be Wormwood. We cast a guy named Jorge in the role, but then he got another part that essentially conflicted, and dropped out. Dan then decided-- almost under duress, though it was essentially duress with himself-- to go with me in the role. And over the four episodes I was in, it's probably the most interesting part and dynamic work I've done.
Episode 02: Hay in a Needlestack (June 1997)
Cast: Wormwood, Tail (Ryan King), Wagner (Gay-Gaughn-Hurst), Agent 13 (Brian Jepson), Caio (Alvin Cantu), Doc Recon (Dave Crawford)
Synopsis: The Silent War moves to Wagner's Books, where everyone is undercover, trying to find the book without being noticed. Wormwood (freshly cleaned and shaven from the Firebox) is there with Caio, a Syndicate Thug, and two Agency operatives, Tail and Agent 13 are searching under the guise of college students. Of course, Wagner herself is a member of the technocult, the Mechanical Fellowship. And then there's Doc Recon, a cybernetic surgeon who, despite being as deep in game as anyone, doesn't seem to take things too seriously, making a point of pretending that his cover is that of a boiler-repairman. Tail, of course, knows who Doc is, since Drake had introduced them, and Doc put in Tail's illegal arm-implants. Tail also isn't sure where Drake's loyalties really laid, but he wants to still trust him. Doc reveals that Drake is alive-- he managed to survive the Firebox by triggering a flame failure, though he's still badly burned. After all the groups keep searching and tensions mount, Doc finds the book, sitting in the window display. Wormwood, enraged, blows cover and stabs Doc Recon in the heart, taking the book. But before he and Caio can get past the Agents, Doc Recon gets back up, clobbers Wormwood and takes the book, and leaves. Tail tries to follow Doc, and Caio drags Wormwood out. Agent 13, however, got surprised by Wagner, who implanted him with a mind-control chip, and welcomes him to the Fellowship.
Notes: This episode was interesting, but it was considered something of a disappointment. The few who saw Episode One thought it was really astounding, especially the creativity in the lights and set. So this one-- a bookstore-- didn't have the same kind of design inspiration. But we did some neat things with the set, including starting the idea of totally changing the configuration of the downstairs space in each episode. The real standout here was Alvin as Caio. When Alvin auditioned, we thought he was, well, crazy. He's great, in that he's incapable of giving you less than 110%. There was one bit that emerged as ad-lib but got fully incorporate, where Wormwood blows off Caio and walks away, and Alvin grabbed a book (paperback) and whipped it at my head. It really played well, but by the end of the run, that book was in tatters.
Oh, and the hardest part of putting this set together? Getting EVERY BOOK that was owned by the cast and crew together, and then sorting them back out at the end.
Episode 03: Declaration of Noise (July 1997)
Cast: Wormwood, Caio, Leo (Lenore Perry), Crowley (Zach Murphy), Salvadore (Anne Engelking), The Asp (Heather Menard), Lovecraft (Jen Hamburg), Anaconda (Bruce Brown)
Synopsis:In the Syndicate Safehouse, Leo (a cybernetic hacker) is running security for the building, but acting strangely, talking through her cybernetic commands. Crowley (the accountant) just thinks it's odd, and not until Salvadore (another Syndicate thug) comes in does it become clear that something isn't right with Leo, who starts seizing. Sal saves Leo by yanking out her connection, which they discover someone tampered with. However, Leo also says she was attacked in cyberspace-- something powerful that stole two of her programs, Mammon and Moloch. Caio bursts in, Wormwood tied up and in tow, both of them battered, bruised and bloody. Since the bookstore, they've been fighting for their lives against agents and cultists, only now making it back. The Anaconda, the boss, arrives with Lovecraft (syndicate thief, and Anaconda's girlfriend), wanting to know how Wormwood screwed up. Caio gets upset to find out that Wormwood has been involved in more Syndicate jobs than he was aware of-- always under disguise, including the Messina Operation, where the Syndicate stole a shipment of Lotus Dust (a colorless, odorless powder that's a powerful paralytic toxin). Wormwood convinces Anaconda to untie him, and but then hits Anaconda with some Lotus Dust he had hidden, and tries to run for it. He's caught by The Asp-- she, Sal and Caio pummel him until the Anaconda grabs him and breaks his neck. As Anaconda and Caio both head off to brood, the Asp (the Syndicate's assassin) tells about her difficulty in killing an agent who turned out to be a cultist. She had such difficulty (as the mind-controlled cultists feel no pain), she had to blow up the apartment building to stop him. Then the safehouse appears to come under attack. All the syndicate evacuate-- but Crowley and Lovecraft return, both of them having been mind-controlled cultists that Drake implanted. They saw open Wormwood's head to steal his brain (and whatever secrets about the Book and the Lotus Dust he knew) and slip off. Anaconda and his people return-- the attack was faked, and Wormwood's body left behind, specifically to smoke out the cult traitors that Anaconda knew was in his midst. Left with only his core group, he sends The Asp to hunt down Doc Recon to get the Book back.
Notes: This one is my favorite, and it was probably our most "successful" on the level of audience and response. It's also the first episode Dan wrote after casting was done, so little elements like jacking up Caio a bit more came into play, as well as some changes to Wormwood, since he specifically wrote it knowing I was playing it. A few jabs at me (Salvadore: He's shorter that I thought he'd be.) as well as the almost complete excisement of an Asp/Wormwood romantic subplot he had originally planned (and set up in 1 & 2). I think because he didn't want to see anything resemebling a love scene involving me. As it came out, the Asp and Wormwood share no dialogue at all. He's dead before her first line ("I lose more lovers this way.") Here, the real standout was Lenore, who took a scene that could have been dreadfully dull-- her acting as if she's in cyberspace, but we only see her responding while a big glowing cable is plugged in her head-- and made it work. Also, this was the first episode where the "begin in the dark" hurt us. The scene was between Anaconda and Lovecraft-- but it didn't have the energy to make it engaging. The red light at the end? Part of Leo's computer.
Episode 04: Beyond Function (August 1997)
Cast: Doc Recon, Drake, The Asp, Wagner, Tail (now played by Renato del Vente), Webster (Miriam Yucht), Marlowe (Marion Thambanayagam)
Synopsis: At Doc Recon's Cybersurgery Clinic/Chop Shop, Doc and his nurse work on patching Drake back together. Drake is a mess-- severely burnt and brain damaged, missing one arm. (The Book, ironically, Doc has "hidden" on his waiting room table, amongst the Highlights.) Tail interrupts, having come to Doc to save Agent 13 (who had been blown up by the Asp off-stage in Episode 3). While Doc goes to help 13, Marlowe (a junior Agency Operative) and The Asp both arrive in the Waiting Room, whose fight is interrupted by the Nurse (Webster), who insists that Asp go back and have her injuries looked at. Webster is actually Agency, in deep cover as Doc's Nurse. Doc, however, was well aware of that, and used Webster as his test subject for his version of the cultist's mind-control implants. Wagner shows up, having tracked the book here, but she gets distracted talking implant-shop with the Doc. As Marlowe and Asp hunt each other, Tail tries to rescue Webster from her mind-control, only to discover she's not under Doc's control, but Drake's-- he's using his Controller-Implant to work around his own damanged brain, through Webster. It comes to a head when Drake (through Webster) throws the Book out at everyone, letting anyone who wants to try and grab it. Doc tries to just walk away, and gets stabbed by the Asp, who then gets pummelled by Marlowe. Webster loses all control, creating enough confusion for Wagner to grab the book and run. Tail chases her, while Marlowe gets Webster out, and the Asp escapes. Doc, bleeding on the floor, starts to sew himself up, as Drake emerges from the back-- he's implanted himself with a Mind-Control chip, essentially regaining control of his body around his brain-damage by mind-controlling himself.
Notes: This episode came off pretty poorly, actually. In no small part to Heather, who played Asp, missing several rehearsals. Plus a major aspect were fight scenes between Heather and Marion, neither of whom were very deft at stage-fighting-- so it lacked panache. We also lost Ryan as Tail, forcing us to scramble to recast. Renato was an excellent substitution, pretty much game for whatever we threw at him. Further problems were caused by trouble at the Public Domain that forced us to do our tech rehearsal late-- so the week before we went up, we were there until 3 or 4 each night, and most of us had jobs to be at at 8. This was also where the schedule of writing and production at the same time was starting to take its toll. For the first three episodes, Marco and I read first drafts, made editorial notes, and Dan made changes. By this point, we had to start rehearsals when the script was done, and from this point on, "first draft" was the only draft we got.
Episode 05: Filter for Zeal (September 1997)
Cast: Caio, The Asp, Tail, Wagner, Lovecraft, Crowley (now played by Dave Dubose), Gecko (Marco Noyola), Fautron (Michael Miller), Moloch (Virigina Pratt), Mammon (Bob Gutierrez)
Synopsis:All the groups converge in the inner sanctum of the Mechanical Fellowship, as Asp and Caio chase Lovecraft and Crowley down the catacombs, and Tail and Gecko-- the Agency's most dangerous agent-- follow Wagner. High Priest Faustron, head of the Mechincal Fellowship, welcome Lovecraft and Crowley, as he's eager to analyze Wormwood's brain. Hooking the brain up to his altar, he tries to learn from it, but Wormwood's brain is uncooperative, since the Asp managed to taint the altar with Lotus Dust. Faustron also has to deal with his two other cultists are being controlled by someone else, who has put the Mammon and Moloch programs in them to observe him. Wagner arrives and delivers the Book to Faustron, who is overjoyed to have it. His people also catch Caio and The Asp, and begin to implant them. Gecko and Tail make their move, at first having to fight overwhleming odds. Tail gets the idea to yank out the implants from Caio and Asp, freeing them to help fight. Crowley and Lovecraft are killed, as are the bodies controlled by Mamon and Moloch, and Caio and Asp are knocked out. Gecko grabs the book, but Faustron grabs Tail, threatening to kill him if Gecko doesn't give up the book. Instead, Gecko sends the Book into the trash chute. Faustron kills Tail and escapes, and Gecko makes his way out of the catacombs.
Notes:You know, I have to admit, I never quite understood what "Filter for Zeal" meant. Anyway, here we had to replace Gecko, a key role we cast a guy named Travis in, but we had cast him five months earlier, and he got a gig in NY and had to bail on us. Marco stepped in, now essentially doing quadruple-duty of set/costumes/props/lead role. Another actress, Virigina, was a replacement of someone who just vanished altogether from the earth. Virignia was not an actress, but a friend of Gay's who just thought it would be fun. And she did fine, very nice person. But, not an actress. We also had to replace Zach as Crowley, because he had basically shifted his interest from acting to doing light-design gigs for money. Dave Dubose was a guy I worked with on Julis Caesar-- one of the nicest guys I've known-- and I called him and got him to the first rehearsal on about a two-hour notice. This show had a HUGE fight as a centerpiece, and in choreographing it, we were out of our element, and we got a guy named Hank to come in and block it. Hank was, well, pretty brusque with us, but he put up with us and got the job done, so bravo on him. As Marco said, "He made me look cool, and that's an accomplishment." Michael Miller as Faustron was a casting coup. He had done shows with the Public Domain, and really is one of the premiere actors in town, though he likes taking smaller jobs sometimes as well. He's brilliant.
Episode 06: The Algebra of Sacrifice (October 1997)
Cast: Gecko, Webster, Salvadore, The Hobo King (Michael Stuart)
Synopsis: Salvadore is in the junkyard, torturing Rex, The Hobo King, thinking he knows something about The Author of the Book. He takes Salvadore's abuse with a certain amount of grace, and eventually tells her that the Book had been by the trash chute that morning. She goes off to look for it, but Rex, himself has it, and has read it. Webster wanders in, having completely lost her mind from being brain-fried by Doc and Drake, and is found by Gecko, who just emerged from the Catacombs. He tries to reason with her, but is unable to get through to her, and she runs off. He is then confronted by Rex, who is mostly annoying, talking in various tangents, but gives Gecko just enough info to keep him interested. Eventually, Rex reveals that he has the Book, and he's read it, and what that means: when you read the Book, you know EVERYTHING. Infinite knowledge. Unfortunately, infinite knowledge can't fit in a finite brain, so if you read it, you will die from an anuerysm eventually, just as Rex says he's about to do. He gives Gecko the Book, and then dies. Gecko manages to get Webster focused, and with her help, captures Sal. As Webster drags off Sal, Gecko stays behind, and reads the book. After he finishes it, he calmly takes out two blades, and cuts out his own eyes.
Notes: Originally, this was just supposed to be Gecko and The Hobo King, but Dan decided to add Sal and Webster into the mix. Actually, he was originally going to have Marlowe instead of Webster, but Marion wasn't available that month. Michael Stuart, in a single-episode guest role, was another casting coup-- he's been described as the Busiest Actor In Austin, but he's great. Hysterical guy, really made The Hobo King something special. The set of the junkyard, done in the round, was pretty fantastic, with this giant wirespool as the centerpiece. That thing then sat on our front porch for about two years, until we finally got a truck to take it to the actual junkyard, where we saw a giant trash-smasher crush it to splinters. There was something cathartic about that.
Episode 07: Station Static (November 1997)
Cast: Gecko, Caio, Asp, Faustron, Doc Recon, Gail (Bernadette Nason), Maryanne (Cheryl BeckHam), Mitch (“T.J.”)
Synopsis: A month having passed since Gecko or the Book were last seen, a mysterious tip from Drake about it showing up at a bus station puts Caio and Asp working undercover at the ticket window and coffee kiosk. They both hate it, especially with the crazy bum who pisses in the corner. However, their efforts are rewarded when Gecko arrives, blind and extremely serene. They’re confused and decide not to move too quickly. Gecko is met by Gail, the Head of the Agency, who is very confused why, when he got the Book, he didn’t bring it in. Gecko tells her that in reading the book, he knew everything, including his own destiny, destroying his own free will in the matter. He’s dying from the Book, and he’s poisoned Gail to force her to play her part in the upcoming charade, as his wife. He’ll give her the antidote after they’ve done it. Enter Mitch and Maryanne, husband and wife, and civilians as far as the Silent War is concerned. Also, old college friends of Gecko’s. After a bit of charade where it comes out that Gecko had a sexual relationship with both of them (separately and together), he tells them he’s dying, and ask them to deliver his briefcase (which holds the Book) to a specific address, and then makes Gail take him to the hospital. Gail offers to deliver it herself, but he tells her that he wants to make sure that “exactly who deserves it” gets the briefcase. They leave, and Mitch and Maryanne are confused, since the address he gave them is the bus station itself. Their confusion doesn’t last long, as they are eviscerated by Caio and Asp, who take the briefcase. They don’t have long to celebrate, since the crazy bum is actually Faustron, who kills Asp and stabs Caio, leaving him to die. As Caio writhes on the floor, Doc Recon, who had been sitting there the whole time with a stealth device, picks him up and carries him off.
Notes: This episode was something of a failure, the weakest of them all. In no small part to the whole episode having been originally an idea for a stand-alone play that Dan and I had cooked up a year earlier, and it got essentially grafted into the Flame Failure serial. There it had been a story about a spy who makes a choice to set up his former lovers as patsies to save his own skin, and here it played flat because of where Gecko’s character was due to reading the book. Michael, at least, had a great time playing Faustron-as-the-crazy-bum, doing it at full tilt. Bernadette, playing Gail, was another real find for us. She actually was the first person cast in the whole serial, when Dan was first cooking up the idea. She’s a saucy British lady in her 40s, and the idea of playing an “Emma Peel twenty years later” was right up her alley. “T.J.”, who played Mitch, was not an actor. And he’ll tell you that. He was just a guy who worked at Dan’s office who agreed to do it. We lost the original guy we cast, because before the episode came up, he was in another show upstairs at the Public Domain, where reviews singled him out (not undeservedly) as being the lone terrible thing in an otherwise excellent production. So he vanished from the acting scene.
Also, this marked one of the biggest changes in the original outline, which had Caio dying at this point. But Dan liked working with Alvin so much, he cooked up the whole “Doc Recon ‘saves’ Caio” idea, which involved Dave as Doc Recon sitting on stage unobtrusively for the whole show, only getting up at the end to pick up Alvin—which actually worked quite well. You literally forgot there was another person on stage until he got up.
Episode 08: Control Shift (December 1997)
Cast: Faustron, Wagner, Wormwood, Mammon, Moloch (now played by Shannon Grounds), MEPH-AI (Marina Lee)
Synopsis: Faustron, now in possession of The Book, is having it slowly downloaded into his brain. In doing so, he has already learned a lot, including the identity of the mysterious entity who has been a ghost in his system—the MEPH-AI, an artificial intelligence created by Drake, now acting on its own and making its own bid for power. In cyberspace, he and Wagner make contact with it, and make a deal to work together with it. The MEPH-AI uses its servitors, Mammon and Moloch, to demonstrate its power by destroying a children’s hospital. As part of Faustron’s deal with MEPH-AI, he sacrifices Wagner, who is killed by Mammon and Moloch. They find the copy of Wormwood’s brain in his system, and after filtering through its lotus-dust madness, they find the secret Faustron hid in Wormwood—they location of the Book, and the digital copy of the Book itself. Having found it, Mammon and Moloch destroy Wormwood, and then the MEPH-AI kills Faustron. The MEPH-AI runs experiments, in making copies of itself to read the Book, but each copy is destroyed in the process. Since it cannot use the Book itself, it decides to make use of it to tempt the other groups involved, as well as orchestrating mass-publishing of it.
Notes: This episode was a very strange one, but in a good way. First of all, it took place entirely in cyberspace. How do you do cyberspace on stage? With blacklights, of course. We all wore florescent make-up, and the “human” characters had whiteface as well. The stage was all done in isolated platforms, each being its own area of cyberspace. In addition, the whole episode was told in a disjointed fashion, as if we were not seeing it as it happened, but reviewing the MEPH-AI’s files of the events after the fact, in the order she felt like looking at them. So you saw Wormwood’s “death” before you saw Fasutron hide the files in him.
This was also a change from the original outline, in that Wormwood was not initially going to appear in this episode. Somewhere around episode five, I dropped the bug in Dan’s ear that he could, though, and Dan ran with it. It was a lot of fun, especially getting to do a scene with Michael (albeit where I had no lines). Michael is a great guy to play off with, because he’s the type of actor who will steal the scene from you, and then wrap it up in a pretty bow and give it back to you. He has a rare gift of being able to be over-the-top without forgetting about the actors he’s on stage with. So to have give-and-take in a scene where he’s giving an Evil Overlord Monologue and I’m giggling and drooling like the village idiot—that’s something.
Episode 09: A Pure Situation (January 1998)
Cast: Leo, Doc Recon, Agent 13, MEPH-AI, Moloch, Mammon (played by Ehren Christian for half the run)
Synopsis: The MEPH-AI invites representatives from each faction—Leo, Agent 13 and Drake—to a VR Poker game, with information being the currency on the table. Drake, however, does not show, sending Doc Recon in his place. This doesn’t please Agent 13, who hated the results of Recon’s “saving” his life—while he appears in VR as a tuxedoed Bond-type, he’s now really a half-robotic monstrosity. The MEPH-AI allows the substitution, though. Doc is amused by the whole thing, including the MEPH-AI’s shiny appearance. The game goes through five hands, with many various tidbits of choice information being put in the kitty, including the physical location of The Book, the digital copy of The Book itself, the location of Salvadore’s holding cell, the Agency’s file on Drake, Doc’s zombie-making formula, and Mother Recon’s Cookbook (which no one wants). After various wins and losses, the final hand is Indian Poker, as chosen by Recon—a version in which each person puts their card on their forehead, so you only know what everyone else has, but not your own card, and the high card wins. Recon wins the hand, and is about to leave with his prize, including The Book and its location, when he confesses that he cheated on the last hand, seeing what card he was holding on the MEPH-AI’s reflective surface. The AI claims his winnings and starts to read the files. When it reads the cookbook, the MEPH-AI screams and is destroyed, as Recon had swapped the files of the cookbook and The Book. Mammon and Moloch are about to avenge their master, but Leo disables them. Doc destroys the file of The Book, which annoys Leo and 13, and all three go their separate ways.
Notes: Of the episodes I didn’t appear in, this one was my favorite. The banter at the table is terrific, and it’s all a lot of fun. Plus, on a design level, it was perhaps our finest hour. First and foremost was the Poker Table, which was both the set and the lighting. The four players each got their spot at the table, which had a glass panel with their color-coded light beneath it. It looked like a giant game of Simon. As the poker games went on, whomever the bet went to, their light came on, so the color of the whole show took on the tone of the character in charge at that moment. I took that concept to heart with the sound design—and I will fully admit this was the only episode of the twelve where my sound design really mattered or worked. I created theme music for each of the four, recorded an hour of each on a continual loop, and set up four tape players (yes, this was on tape, it was the 90s) through a mixer, so that when the lights changed, the sound did as well, giving you the theme music to match the color scheme. Agent 13’s music was the Peter Gunn theme, reversed, Doc Recon had calypso music, Leo a warped version of something akin to the Godfather theme, and the MEPH-AI? The end of the 1812 Overture, reversed and slowed down so much, it was just these long, low ominous notes. It sounded very evil. Plus Marco got to have a lot of fun designing the MEPH-AI. Poor Marina, in episode 08, was buried in a huge cloak and a fencing mask. She’s a very pretty girl, with a very expressive face, and in this episode you actually got to see her-- in a silver evening dress with every inch of skin covered in silver make-up. She looked very neat. And shiny.
Episode 10: The Havoc of Potentials (February 1998)
Cast: Drake, Doc Recon, Gail, Marlowe, Webster, Leo, Assorted Zombies (Eric Love, Shannon Grounds, Bob Gutierrez, Jeff Shaevel)
Synopsis: Doc and Drake are at a warehouse holding thousands of copies of the book (as set up by the MEPH-AI), coating the place in a fire-accelerant, in preparation for burning the place down. Drake seems in good shape, with a new cybernetic eye and arm. He also has, thanks to Doc, new skin lined with an asbestos weave—rendering him theoretically fireproof. His mind is also functioning, for the most part—but he has gaps in his memory. He’s forgotten, for instance, telling Doc to grab Caio and fix him up, and that he told Doc to let Caio go, as well as telling Doc to go to the poker game. His omniscience has gaps—specifically regarding himself. He realizes, though, that he saved himself from the Book’s destructive effects by destroying part of his brain, and by utilizing his ability the compartmentalize his brain—the way he kept his “identities” separate when he was being a quadruple-agent. He does remember, however, that the warehouse is owned by the Syndicate, which is why Leo comes to check out the place. She doesn’t find anything, since Doc and Drake are using Doc’s stealth devices. They don’t realize that Webster is there as well, using a new Agency stealth device (as 13 won the designs in the poker game). When Drake goes out to the van to get the detonator, she clobbers Doc and beats him to a bloody pulp—making sure he stays dead despite his extra organs. Gail and Marlowe show up—Marlowe having been promoted to being Gail’s new lieutenant, as well as being given a new eye designed to track stealth devices. She spots Drake, and they capture him, disabling his new arm. Gail interrogates him, and he eventually tells her that these copies of the book have a single printing error—a lone typo, but essentially a critical flaw that make them useless. He also tells her that he had already re-stolen and re-hidden the original, and whispers to her where it is. She leaves for it, leaving Marlowe and Webster to finish the job in the warehouse. Before they can, they’re interrupted by Leo. They think they have an advantage over her, but she’s brought back-up of her zombie army—made with Doc’s formula that she won at the poker game. While the zombies fight Marlowe and Webster, Drake realizes he can use his mind-control implant to take over any one of the zombies. As he jumps between bodies, he kills Marlowe and Webster, and then goes for Leo, who shuts off the zombies and goes to kill Drake himself. Before she can, he sets off the detonator, exploding the warehouse.
Notes: One big change in this episode was with Doc Recon, who originally was supposed to die at the very end of the episode, instead of halfway through it. This script was incredibly late in getting done, however, so Dave essentially issued a “finish it today or I’m not doing it” ultimatum, so Dan skipped work, pounded out the script, and killed Doc’s character early on. Dave was perfectly happy with this, since the script was done. The zombies, also, were not part of the original plan. But while in earlier episodes we were scrambling to find replacement actors, we now had gotten some clout of cool, and thus a handful of people who were saying, “If you need someone, let me know.” So, zombie army, and another big fight scene. It also gave us an excuse to do a variant on our usual blood packs. (Did I mention we used blood packs on these shows? A LOT of them? We did. Mopping and laundry after each performance was mandatory. Go back to episode 03, where they CUT OPEN MY HEAD, and think about the amount of blood we used there.) Kool-aid powder—Black Cherry, specifically, was a key component of our blood, but for the Zombies? Lime. Bright electric green ichor. This episode also had some new technical work with the detonator, made by wiring a bunch of old disposable cameras together with a jury-rigged switch to make all the flashes go off at once. That was a pain to make, but it looked cool, especially the moment Drake charged it, and you heard the multiple whines of all the capacitors loading up.
Episode 11: The Man Behind the Dustcover (March 1998)
Cast: Drake, Anaconda, Gail, Agent 13, Salvadore, Caio, The Author (Craig Kanne)
Synopsis: Drake comes to a small apartment, where the book is hidden, and re-reads it, regaining his total-omniscience. He slips out just as Anaconda, Caio and Salvadore come in, having been sent here on a tip from Drake. Anaconda is tired of the whole game, and Caio is freaking out, both at their dwindling numbers, as well as his own experience of being left to die and put back together again by Recon. But they’re here because they believe it’s the home of The Author of The Book. As they wait, a man comes in, whom Anaconda knocks out, and they tie him up. When he comes to, Caio and Sal interrogate him, but half the time he seems to know nothing, and the rest of the time, he answers as if he was Drake. They realize he has an old cult-implant, and through the Author, Drake reveals that the guy is the legitimate article, the guy who wrote The Book, but he reprogrammed him with an old cult implant to keep him in a recurring loop, so his own brain wouldn’t be destroyed. Suddenly, Gail and Agent 13 burst in (13 now seen as the half-cyborg he has been turned into). 13 grabs Sal, Caio grabs Gail, and Anaconda grabs the Author, and they have a three-way Mexican Stand-off. It breaks when Gail orders 13 to release Sal. Sal, being set free, stabs Caio in the chest—when she was held captive, the Agency turned her to work for them. Outnumbered 3-to-1, Anaconda breaks the Author’s neck, and they grab him. As the agents interrogate Anaconda, Drake slips in under the cover of a stealth device, and revives Caio (activating the back-up heart Doc installed), who savagely kills Sal. Caio and 13 then fight, and then Gail and Anaconda kill each of them. Gail and Anaconda, now left with only each other, realize that a stealthed Drake is in the room with them. Before they can react, Drake gasses them both with Lotus Dust. With them both knocked out, he goes over to Caio’s body and pours some green fluid down his throat, saying he has “one last job”.
Notes: Craig Kanne as The Author was our last Special Guest Star role. Craig is a terrific actor who can do just about any voice you can think of. We were lucky to convince him to do it. This episode also had the Lotus Dust bomb, in which we blew out own continuity. In episode 03, it was an “odorless, colorless gas”, and here it’s a white smoke. Why? Because Dan was really keen to make a smoke bomb. This is because of Jerry. Jerry was the husband of Gay, who played Wagner, and whenever she rehearsed, he’d just come over and hang out. And Jerry was an expert on chemistry and explosives. So, at one point, he told Dan how to make a smoke bomb, which meant, of course, that Dan HAD to do it.
Episode 12: Theoretical Cauterization (April 1998)
Cast: Drake, Anaconda, Gail
Synopsis: Anaconda and Gail wake up to find themselves in a dark places, both of them tied up. After they argue with each other, trying to figure out where they are and what happened to them, they remember that they were gassed by Drake. A flashlight comes on, and Drake is in the corner, back in brain-damaged mode, unable to give them meaningful answers. Then he switches personalities, and reveals that they and him, and the book, are all trapped in the firebox of a boiler, just as we was in the first episode. As they argue with him, he keeps screaming and switching personalities—though the “omniscient” Drake tells them that he’s actually killing off the personalities in his head, closing the compartments completely. They try to convince him to untie them, which he eventually does, and then to let them out, which he can’t do. He locked them all in there by reanimating Caio’s body, and once the door was latched, he smashed the controls to Caio. In a few minutes, the boiler will light, and they’ll all die. Anaconda knocks out Drake, and at first he and Gail work together to disable the fireeye and cause a Flame Failure. Their partnership is short-lived, as Anaconda uses brute force to take the book from Gail, and goes in the corner to read it. Drake wakes up, and with his last personality, tells Gail that Anaconda is now in the throws of reading the book (whenever anyone read it, they went through it faster and faster, growing more and more manic until they finished it)—however, he had already torn out the last page and left it outside the boiler. Anaconda, reaching the torn-out part, starts beating his own head. Drake then tells Gail that despite the state the Anaconda is in, he probably knows enough to know that Drake disabled the safety circuits, so the boiler will not have a flame failure. Drake’s brain resets, leaving only the brain-damaged Drake, who holds onto Gail and cries like a child, just as the pilot light goes on.
Notes:Somehow, we made it to the end. There were points where it seemed like we wouldn’t. This episode was especially challenging, not only because we had to rebuild the Firebox, but because there were two shows using the Downstairs of the Public Domain at once. It really was the most use out of the theatre it had ever seen—upstairs, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, there was the Mainstage show of Life of Galileo, while downstairs, Monday through Wednesday at 8pm, there was Edward II, and Friday & Satruday at 11p (and Sunday at 8pm) was Flame Failure. Two sets on opposite sides of the room. Dan was really annoyed, because he thought it should have been one or the other, and that Robi (who was the artistic director of the PD) screwed us in letting that happen. Robi didn’t decide either way, telling us to work it out with Chris (who was doing Edward). Which Marco and I did. It was crazy, but we got it hammered out and only had a few sleep-deprivation-based hallucinations.
The final night, though, was fun, because almost everyone who had been in the cast showed up, and we took a giant collective bow where Dan introduced each one of us in the order our characters died. We struck the set, swept the space, and everyone went to the house for a blow-out cast party.
Right before we left, Dan, Marco and I were the last ones out of the downstairs space, and Marco turned to us and said, “Gentlemen, I just want to say one thing: we did this.” And the we turned off the lights, and locked the doors.
We did get one final acknowledgment. The next month, when the Austin Critics Table Awards were announced-- as the eligibility period was, coincidentally, May to April-- we were given a special award of "Theatrical Marathon". In the beginning, when we first announced what we were doing, the arts editors of the papers treated us with what could be called, at best, healthy skepticism. They all but bluntly told us that we wouldn't actually pull it off. So that was a nice nod, saying, "Yes, for better or for worse, you did do it."
Would I do something like that again?
What, like novel-writing isn't hard enough?