The Skriker, by Caryl Churchill; House of Ithaqua at the Cherry Artspace, through Sat Nov 23.
By any measure Caryl Churchill is one of our leading English-language playwrights, known for her ability to morph theatrical forms with every play she writes. Her haunting urban gothic, “The Skriker,” challenging to produce, is rarely cited. So big props for House of Ithaqua’s current production, smartly directed by HOI’s Artistic Director A. J. Sage.
Churchill describes the character of the Skriker as “a shapeshifter and death portent, ancient and damaged,” and drops into her cauldron a twisted passel of monstrosities, creatures deeply rooted in British folklore and nursery rhymes: Yallery Brown, RawHeadandBloodyBones, Bogle, Black Annis, Kelpie, Spriggan, ghosts, etc. While more are at home in the underworld, they begin to pop up all over modern-day London, as the Skriker pursues two teenage girls: Josie, recently a psychiatric patient for apparently killing her newborn, and Lily, a pregnant runaway.
Churchill’s text is threaded with deliciously impossible stage directions, such as “There is a row of small houses. Spriggen and Rawheadandbloodybones tower over them,” that open up vistas of stage possibilities. Then there is the peculiar language of the Skriker, a vertiginous cascade of associative run-on phrases: “Open bluebeard's one bloody chamber maid, eat the one forbidden fruit of the tree top down comes cradle and baby” that mangle and re-mix fairy tales and commonplaces.
The liminal world thus conjured thrums with uncertainty and foreboding, and since the Skriker appears as anyone or thing (including a child, a homeless woman, a fairy, a sofa, a man), the play produces a field of paranoia. This Skriker is simultaneously needy and seductive, addiction personified. Motherhood itself becomes a potential threat; no accident that the story of Rumplestiltskin pops up early.
Strong ensemble work marks the many creatures (15 actors), imaginatively costumed by Elizabeth Kitney. Amanda Moretti has choreographed their movement in ersatz and fluid phrases, enhanced by the superb soundscape generated by Zaccharie Charvolin and Norm Scott. While all the ensemble are spot-on, Dan Kiely’s Spriggan, Karen Koyangi’s Green Lady and Noah Elman’s RawHeadandBloodyBones stand out.
Sage has chosen a minimalist arena staging, mostly quick arrangements of chairs, with sound and Lea Davis’s ever-shifting lighting to mark place. The aesthetic makes sense, though it necessarily loses some of the uncanny juxtapositions Churchill invents (e.g., a Brownie working as a barkeep.) The mood achieved with the creatures is more melancholic Victorian gothic than savagely ancient. The pace is good, only sagging a bit at the two-thirds mark, when the actors also fall into a patch of shouting.
Maya Jones and Erin Lockett portray Josie and Lily respectively, with a tight, sinewy partnership. Jones is the more cynical, already part deadened by her life. Lockett maintains an optimism which spars with the watchful in Lily, she acts with a direct simplicity that is both girlish and able to cut to the chase.
Barbara Geary astonishes as the Skriker. She alternately caresses and flings her phrases, a maker of stories with a circuit missing, never losing the thread of meaning. Protean physicality (bending, springing, shrinking, striking) and keenly etched characterizations propel the play forward. Geary wheedles and rages, seduces and bullies in a furious whiplash that both terrifies and mesmerizes.
Three more chances for this Gothic feast, this Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (houseofithaqua.com)