Sunday, September 23, 2012


(Photo by Austin D. Oie)

British playwright Caryl Churchill's 1994 play, "The Skriker", is often referred to by its critics as "a nightmare." Not "a nightmare" in the derogatory connotation, mind you, but nightmarish in the frightfully familiar sleep-time sensations it conjures. A marvelous concoction of magical realism and supernatural horror, "The Skriker", on the page, is a theatrical experience without peer. Having the surreal creativity of the Muppets while overflowing with the sort of brazenness and intellectual fervor characteristic of the acclaimed and always innovative Churchill. 

But still, she is a divisive playwright, to say the least. And I’ll admit that much of her work – like “Top Girls” and "Cloud 9” – gets bogged down in pretension and superciliousness, leaving audiences scratching their heads and me sprinting for supplementary scholarly articles on JSTOR. But not “The Skriker”. Though often verbosely lyrical and containing some mighty stimulating gender, relationship, and socio-economic commentary, this play is completely accessible and approachable. And in "Hit The Wall" director Eric Hoff's promenade staging at Red Tape Theatre, with essential scenes occurring six inches from your nose, quite literally so.

The hazy, enveloping reality of "The Skriker" makes the play, unlike most, an ideal candidate for promenade - with the audience exploring the same space occupied by the actors instead of sitting sedentary on a fixed seat. Hoff has taken great advantage of his circumstance, making a supremely detailed, fanciful horror story - alive with interactivity. For a moment, the mauve sprightliness of the staging and the street urchin quality of Izumi Inaba's costumes actually began to remind me of Jim Henson's "Labyrinth", a favorite film of mine, when, all of a sudden, a background television began airing his equally splendid and macabre "Dark Crystal". Red Tape's production exerts the same brand of whimsical discovery that those clever creature films do, and, aside from an overextended cyclical finale of too much imagery and dance, the play maintains intensity and wonder throughout.

The Skriker, a mythological faerie suspended in time, speaks a jumbled concoction of recognizable terms, emotive noises, and gobbledygook - a perceptive window into the simultaneous logic and lawlessness of a dreamscape, and more abstractly, our own world at large. Dreams and nightmares deserve the immersion of promenade, and the occasional claustrophobia of story and place informs the text in thrilling new ways. At an intermissionless two hours, however, the amount of standing might prove exhausting to some, and those with a physical inability to do so might want to take a pass. But I was just fine. Being a strong advocate for standing room - I've stood for three hour plays before - I appreciated the hyperactivity of sense that being upright afforded.

The church gymnasium that Red Tape calls home is cavernous, allowing for a vast plethora of distinctive scenic environments to take shape (Set by Emily Guthrie) and lending Stephen Ptacek's sound design a lonely echo. The four-sided gym seems straightforward enough, but the manipulation of wall flats and curtains forges a number of nooks, crannies, and secret passageways for these walking terrors to emerge from. And do they ever. The ensemble's complete commitment to their creepy-crawly demonic personas keeps the audience constantly glancing over their shoulders for who might unexpectedly pop up. 

The play opens in a long psychological thriller hallway, at the end of which is an amoebic amalgamation of entwined bodies, breathing as one. The Skriker emerges and begins a long, winding monologue that imparts  evocatively rather than actively. Sadie Rogers, with a voice part English spinster and part street corner bag lady, brings two integral elements to her Skriker - unexpected likability and palpable anticipation. Rogers is terribly funny, and carries a razor sharp sarcasm that only centuries of mischievous, shape shifting omnipresence could impart. The other rather impressive factor of Rogers' performance is the anticipation she coerces. In the later scenes that feature the Skriker only intermittently, the audience anxiously awaits her return - fully understanding her evil, but too intoxicated to care. 

The sizable ensemble, typical of Red Tape, has an awfully imposing job - exerting the stored energy usually reserved for a large scale musical as they reconfigure walls, manipulate props by the barrel full, and partake in glorious, phantasmagorical demon banquets. But while necessary for manual labor, they all achieve unique and sickly personalities immediately recognizable.  Josie and Lily are the two girls that the Skriker charms, destroys, puppeteers, and coddles - played respectively by Amanda Drinkall and Carrie Drapac. Frequently promenade dramas and atmospheric pieces lack dexterity and subtlety in individual performances. Not so here. Both lead actresses are vulnerable to the Skriker's advances, but shed a harsh power and intelligence that keep the, otherwise vague, possibility of the girls' victory foreseeable.

Drinkall, in addition to owning piercing eyes that quite brilliantly reveal psychopathic turmoil, must be applauded for her strong dialect work (Dialect Coach Lindsay Bartlett) - paying extreme attention, not only to its common Britishness, but to its urban quirks as well. Drapac, as the pregnant Lily, never cheaply elicits the audience's pity, but quite contrastingly, bathes the character in sensuousness and abrasive luxury. Drapac and Drinkall - names together sounding like a vaudevillian clowning duo - counterbalance one another's personalities, becoming logical best friends, survivors, and sometime adversaries.

"The Skriker" is certainly the most unusual play I've seen in recent memory. The text, itself, is the pinnacle of what it means to be out-of-the-box, and Red Tape's promenade configuration takes the story even further outside of that once constrictive box. But the proud weirdness, discombobulation, paranoia, transformation, and sinister magic of this play and of this production harmoniously come together to build something unquestionably singular and blatantly eclectic. -Johnny Oleksinski

"The Skriker" runs at Red Tape Theatre through October 20. Visit for more information.