Godzilla's Back and More Low-Budget Than Ever

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The Dark Room Theater definitely has its niche. The tiny black-box theater in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District hosts standup comedy, variety shows, and weekly Bad Movie Nights with heckling de rigueur. But with some regularity it also offers up campy stage adaptations of cult movies and TV shows, from Twilight Zone and Star Trek to Dirty Dancing and The Princess Bride. Recently there was even a play based on the videogame Asteroids. Upcoming shows include a live episode of Firefly in October and one of a dozen theatrical versions of It's a Wonderful Life in December, although theater owner Jim Fourniadis promises that it will be more loving parody than straight-up adaptation. "We make fun of things here at the Dark Room Theater, but only because we love them," Fourniadis says in his preshow speech for the newest show.

Right now the Dark Room is taking on a much bigger target than usual with Godzilla Live, adapted and directed by Fourniadis. How one of San Francisco's tiniest stages is going to capture a thirty-story mutated lizard is most of the fun, and the company rises to the challenge with gusto.

The short answer is that this Godzilla goes back to the 1950s roots of the Japanese monster movie franchise by having the radioactive reptile played by a guy in a full-body suit (cowriter/designer David Moore), his extreme size conveyed by tiny props of ships and San Francisco landmarks.

Godzilla Live
Jennifer Keller, Ralph Hoy, Travis Eichhorn and Katrina Kroetch in Godzilla Live.

Only an hour long, Godzilla Live is fairly faithful to the plot of the original 1954 movie, though Fourniadis wisely imports the action from Tokyo to San Francisco. (Considering how broad the German accents are, it's just as well that the characters aren't Japanese anymore.) Mutated by a nuclear explosion, the rampaging reptile lays waste to ships at sea and finally attacks the city, and the only hope against him is science -- an elderly scientist and his reclusive protege and would-be son-in-law, whose intended has actually fallen in love with a sailor but doesn't have the heart to tell him.

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Of course, the Dark Room version uses this framework as the basis for some very broad comedy. Doomed fishermen are portrayed as cartoonish pirates, and citizens of Treasure Island are superstitious grass-skirted natives. Sacrificing virgins seems to be everybody's Plan A against Godzilla attacks. The play is packed with clever running gags often hampered by lackluster execution.

The show boasts a surprisingly large cast for such a small stage -- a dozen performers, most of them playing countless random citizens and lizard fodder. Ralph Hoy is particularly funny as the robotically stony-faced scientist who refuses to let the deadly "oxygen destroyer" that he's invented fall into the wrong hands, by which he means any hands at all. Bryce Byerley is amusingly befuddled as the canny old German scientist Professor Wisenheimer, and Katrina Kroetch makes a comically fretful distressed damsel as his demure daughter, who's always sobbing while people awkwardly try to shake her out of it. (The shaking usually starts before the crying, curiously enough.) Travis Eichhorn seems at sea as her fishmonger boyfriend, but amusing turns in smaller roles abound, from Jennifer Keller's rumpled reporter to assistant director Lauren Davidson's deadpan scientist, whose role is to portentously state the obvious.

Very low-budget, lackadaisically paced and rough around the edges, Godzilla Live is far from a polished production, but that's part of its charm. As a short, campy lark, it's pretty much what you're looking for when you go to a show like this. If you want to see Godzilla lewdly laying waste to Coit Tower, the Dark Room's more than happy to oblige.

Godzilla Live runs through September 28, 2013 at the Dark Room Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit darkroomsf.com.

All photos by Jim Fourniadis.