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Pulp Playhouse Turns Stuff of Bad Novels to Improvisational Comedy

<i> McCulloh frequently writes about theater for Calendar. </i>

A squeaking door, a crash of thunder, gunshots, characters larger than life and tales of daring and fright--these were the stock in trade of the pulp magazines that proliferated during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. San Francisco’s improvisational Pulp Playhouse is in town to help the adventurous return to those thrilling days of yesteryear and the cult world of pulp fiction.

The group plays to packed houses in the Bay Area, improvising the purple prose of that bygone form, to the delight of repeat audience members who frequently arrive at the theater in costumes appropriate to the genre of the evening, much like the fans of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

“In San Francisco, the lobby was always full of people dressed up like us ,” says O-Lan Jones, a founding member of Pulp Playhouse, who now makes Los Angeles home. “It was scary. They were aficionados .”

In a conversation with actress Jones (look for her as the religious fanatic in “Edward Scissorhands”) and Reed Kirk Rahlmann (author of humorous articles and also an actor), the cult image of Pulp Playhouse is strong. The group even seems a cult unto itself.

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Its members--director Brian Lohmann, Diane Barry, Rafe Chase, Jones, Rahlmann, Paul Killam, Regina Saisi and Barbara Scott--are nothing if not dedicated to the special form of their shows. Rahlmann and Jones are also quite vocal in their tribute to musical director J. Raoul Brody, lighting designer Chris (Sparky) French and the amazing vocal effects by Steve Kearin. They also improvise.

Kearin, they both insist, can make almost any sound that the high-powered stories require, even “doors, keys in locks,” Rahlmann says. “He can actually make metal sounds with his mouth. A walking sound-effects room is what he is.”

The group was founded almost three years ago by Lohmann, who came up with the production’s hook--storytellers a la D.C. Comics’ “Tales From the Crypt,” who guide the improvisers through their pulp parodies in genres that include, in their current evenings, horror, crime, romance and adventure.

The company does have favorites. Rahlmann says, “We like doing horror a lot. Horror’s big fun. You can play with it. It’s so easy since we don’t use any real props. You can make anything happen.”

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“Play” is an operative word for Jones and Rahlmann. “It’s supreme fun--grown-ups playing the way you always wished your friends could play” when you were a kid, says Jones with the infectious laugh that’s a hallmark of her conversation. “But it’s such smart playing. People really enjoy the spirit of play. You don’t see much of that in the world, play that isn’t just goofing off, that has intelligence behind it.”

“Everybody buys into it, too,” Rahlmann says. “You say, ‘I’m the king.’ And everybody says, ‘Hail, king.’ And you’re the king for the life of the story.” When they are deep in the Western genre, he says, “here are grown-ups running around the stage shooting imaginary guns at each other and dying.”

Jones’ laugh cuts through the conversation again. “It’s very sophisticated,” she says. Then, seriously, she says the group’s audiences “know they have to partake in it. This is representational, and they have to help make up what’s going on. In movies, people tend to think they’re seeing reality because there are locations that are real, and the people are being real.”

In fact, the group’s play is quite serious work. On stage, Jones admits, “We almost go into an altered state, with the speed at which you’re thinking and moving. Sometimes it feels as though the dialogue has a huge gap in it while someone is thinking. Then we play back the video, and there’s no pause at all. You’re so in touch with the other people. Your perception of time is so different; the way you’re listening brings you up to a different speed. Suddenly someone will look at another actor and say, ‘And then she said the thing that changed his life. . . .”

“It’s fun to throw curves like that,” Rahlmann says. “Our audiences love to see us getting each other in trouble.

“Improv has always been thought of as an exercise for actors,” he says. “With us, it’s an end in itself. And it’s different every night, and it really is at the moment. It’s taking one aspect of live theater, the immediacy and just amplifying it. It happens once. We like to keep the tightrope up high and know that it’s really happening right there.”

“You don’t get that,” Jones says, “unless you’re paying strict attention to what’s going on.”

Each of Pulp Playhouse’s evenings is devoted to one genre of pulp fiction and includes eight stories developed out of that genre. The group has experimented with longer forms, but Rahlmann says: “There’s an immediacy about telling a story in 10 minutes that’s really appealing to an audience. It keeps the interest at a peak, and you get to see eight stories in one evening. It also allows for an exploration of the variations of the genre.”

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The Pulp Players also have their least favorite genre. Jones puckers her face in mock horror. “Espionage is a nightmare. The only thing we get from the audience is the title. There are all these red herrings and false leads, and if you’re trying to connect all these leads, you go crazy ! We know each other enough to find our way out of these labyrinths, but it’s so iffy it’s scary. You’re determined to bring all those clues together.”

“And we’ve got 20 loose ends!” Rahlmann adds.

“And nobody’s leaving until we fix it!”

Jones laughs. She knows they always fix it.

“Pulp Playhouse” is testing the Los Angeles genre in a limited engagement at the Powerhouse, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica, Thursdays to Sundays, 8 p.m. Admission is $10 in advance, $12 at the door. (213) 392-6529.


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