Deposited at the door of Red Tape Theatre last week by a carsickness-inducing cab ride in a less-than-ideal state of wobbly mind and stomach, I arrived at the opening of "The Skriker," a play that conjures a notably bumpy ride all its own.
Regardless of whether you're in a compromised condition, the production is a discombobulating physical experience. It is staged in the old church gymnasium of the company's headquarters, the space transformed into something dark and murky, empty but for a corridor of movable walls that close in around the audience as it moves from scene to scene along with the actors.
There's not a seat or bench in sight, so be prepared; you will be standing or walking for the full 100 minutes of the show. I think director Eric Hoff overestimates the average person's endurance for this sort of thing, especially for a show as hard to comprehend as this 1994 work from Caryl Churchill, which seems to be about the urges that drive young mothers to infanticide. Or maybe it's not about that at all. No one seems to agree what this play is about exactly, and in some ways that is one of its strengths. Churchill rarely comes at an issue head-on; there's a bit of Anthony Burgess in her sensibility here, a bit of H.P. Lovecraft — a fairy tale so fractured, I dare say it doesn't exist.
So the script is weird to begin with. Weird and dense — and about as proudly inaccessible as it gets. These are qualities that demand a balance from the staging, whereas Hoff's go-for-broke immersion is akin to dumping every spice into the pot and then garnishing it with a few more. I found myself overwhelmed to the point of not actually connecting with anything beyond my sensory response.
Spectator and actor alike are forced to invade one another's personal space. The lack of air circulation and the apparent addition of stage haze only increases the stifling effect. You want visceral theatergoing? I was this close to becoming the worst spectator ever when members of the cast launched into a round of vigorous retching into buckets. And more than once, as I watched the walls box us in, the imagery was nothing short of being locked inside a casket. At one point an unidentified creature with face-obscuring dreadlocks crept up behind me for a long sniff and I nearly jumped out of my skin. You feel quite literally trapped.
That's powerful, powerful stuff — and I have a real admiration for Hoff's crazed, seedy vision. But I'm not sure it serves this script. At every turn the stage business becomes a distraction from the bones of the play. The experience is immediate but in no way meaningful. That may be a winning tactic for a haunted house, but a work of theater demands more.
Through Oct. 20 at Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont Ave. (in St. Peter's Episcopal Church); tickets are $25 at redtapetheatre.org
"Geography of a Horse Dreamer"
Hey, a disgusting room! Must be the latest production from Mary-Arrchie, a company so committed to set-designed grunge that I'm pretty sure it's part of their guiding ethos. Do you wish there were more productions that allowed you, curious audience member, to stare meaningfully at an actor's hole-filled socks? This is your show.
It's one of Sam Shepard's earlier and emotionally slighter efforts, but the bard of bruised humanity is in recognizable form, with his penchant for dreamers and crackpots, thieves and poets, nasty hotel rooms and an unlucky sucker who's about to face down something ugly. The play is a half-smirk of a gangster story, and at its center lies an unfortunate man handcuffed to a bed. "I need a better situation," he says in the understatement of the year.
Mary-Arrchie has had a better handle on this kind of thing in the past, but here the production toggles uncertainly between comedy and intense drama in the hands of director Carlo Lorenzo Garcia. It is only in the play's final third when Matt Rockwood appears (as the mysterious character menacingly referred to as the Doctor) that things get interesting. Built like Fred Gwynne's Herman Munster, Rockwood is a big hulking slab of an actor, and he manages to transcend the production's campy inclinations to create the rich and deeply enigmatic performance the play sorely needs.
Through Oct. 28 by Mary-Arrchie Theatre at Angel Island, 735 W. Sheridan Road; tickets are $10-$25 at 773-871-0442 or maryarrchie.com