Sure, the movie "Titanic" pulled off some colossal special effects. But if you want a taste of raw imagination, step back in time to the radio days of half a century ago.
You can do that this weekend in Ventura when a local theater group re-creates a live radio broadcast of Edgar Allan Poe's "Tales to Tremble By."
The staged production takes the audience into an old-time studio where spontaneity was a must for actors, and sound-effects guys dashed about banging everything from toilet plungers to crowbars--anything that would make the broadcast come alive for listeners.
But producer Jeff G. Rack and his Grand Guignol Theater Company have gone beyond adaptations of a handful of Poe's chilling works. They've created a story around the actors involved in the broadcast, so the audience witnesses all the behind-the-scenes deadline pressure that went into one of these 1940s broadcasts.
"There's a whole flurry of activity and angst as air time approaches," Rack said. "One script isn't ready, one of the actresses is late, and one hasn't shown up."
This isn't the group's first foray into suspense radio drama. In 1996 the cast re-created the old radio classic "The Shadow," with its ghoulish intro, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"
Many of the same cast members from that production are involved in this one, which features Robert E. "Doc" Reynolds, Linda Livingston, Jim Kasmir, Jeanie Hays, Rick Hinson (who bears a shocking resemblance to Poe) and inventive sound-effects whiz Jim Barker.
For the show, they've adapted three of Poe's short stories for the stage. "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a gruesome trip inside the mind of a madman who takes things into his own hands when he no longer can bear the sight of an old man's deformed eye.
In "The Cask of Amontillado," the outcome is just as grisly when another poor chap tires of a friend's repeated insults, and plots revenge. Poe's lighter side comes out in "Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether," a visit to an insane asylum where the patients are in charge.
Poe's famous poem "The Raven" also gets an airing, along with a new spin on the bird's demise called "The Death of the Raven," by Poe's cat.
"I'm a big Poe aficionado," said Rack, who works for Disney's special-effects company Dreamquest and is one of the creators of Santa Paula Theater Center's annual "Ghost Walk."
"We've tried to be true to his work," Rack said of adapting Poe's stories to the stage. "I don't know of any other writer more badly maligned."
This weekend's production is the first for the newly formed Grand Guignol Theater Company. The name is a takeoff on a form of horror theater that was popular in the 1800s, he said.
"Like the slasher movies of today, it was theater of the bizarre," Rack said. "A lot of what we do leans toward that--things that are a little off."
In "Tales to Tremble By," the radio actors are gearing up for the Poe broadcast, but panic sets in minutes before air time when they discover the writer of the script isn't finished. In fact, he's drunk. Then, the unprepared script girl has to fill in for the missing actress.
Meanwhile, the audience overhears the pre-broadcast banter of the actors. It all takes place in March 1945, so there is talk of the war. The famous Iwo Jima photograph has hit the papers and boxer Joe Louis is hot. Mutual of Omaha is the show's sponsor.
Barker is a blur of motion as he re-creates the sound effects for the Poe stories. He knocks coconut shells together to imitate horses' hooves on cobblestone, raps a crowbar with a drumstick for clock chimes and thumps a drum for a beating heart. The sound of water dripping in the catacombs is no problem: He drips water from a turkey baster into a fish bowl.
The sound effects, the pre-broadcast frenzy--that's pretty much the way it was in old radio drama, according to veteran actor Reynolds, who was there in the 1940s. "We'd throw stuff on the floor after we read it," he said.
There were gaffes. The wrong sound effect would go off, or one of the actors would have a coughing fit. The hardest part, he said, was timing the show to end exactly when it should. "If the script slowed down, we'd have to speed up."
"Tales to Tremble By" will take place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday at Variety Theater, 34 N. Palm St., Ventura. Tickets are $12.50 and include refreshments. For reservations, call (805) 643-5701.