Skriker's Captivating Web Shotgun Players production builds with words and silence
Language boils and thickens in The Skriker like a witch's poisoned brew. But it's the haunted, bruised silences of two young women that linger in the local premiere of Caryl Churchill's feverish 1994 dramatic fantasia about madness, motherhood and spirit possession. The darkly vivid Shotgun Players production got an East Bay tryout over the weekend at Berkeley's Julia Morgan Theater. It moves to San Francisco on Friday for a five-week run at the Warehouse Performance Space.
The Skriker has a dense, neo-Baroque texture that turns oppressive in spots over the 1 3/4-hour running time. Some scenes and speeches grind on tirelessly. For those who submit to the composite spell -- of devilish wordplay, Hieronymous Bosch imagery, sly humor and a trio of women gripped in a terrible emotional clench -- the evening pays off memorably.
The nimble Gillian Chadsey plays the title role of a demonic shape-shifter preying on a pair of London friends. Assisted by a swarm of nightmare fairies, she's already maddened one mother (a morosely gleaming Jennifer Taggart as Josie) into killing her baby. Now she's after the wide-eyed, nervously giggling and very pregnant Lily (Beth Donohue).
The Skriker's long opening speech is a kind of psychosexual incantation. "Slick, slack, slut,'' Chadsey intones, her bewitched, canny eyes and gauzy-winged body emerging from a wall of black rubber slats.
That Joycean, stream-of-consciousness overture, crammed with nonsense, puns and literary allusions, sets the tone. Words, visions, even music can take possession of someone and not let go. A woman hears a fiddle melody and can't stop dancing. Three men chattering on cell phones are suddenly twinned by mimicking apes on their backs. Women spontaneously vomit money and live frogs.
Appearing as a street beggar, a child, an American Southerner, a catatonic cheerleader and finally a sinister Prince Charming, the Skriker pursues Lily in quest of the baby. Donohue gives a striking, openhearted performance as the object of the fairy's schemes. Generous one moment and panicked the next, she radiates a watchful survival instinct with her searching eyes. Taggart's eyes are revealing, too; her Josie is full of sardonic pain and a borderline mania that comes roaring out in one powerful explosion. In Josie and Lily's consistently effective scenes together, the play's elaborate language is pared down to the telegraphic code of two needy, wounded friends.
Churchill, whose other plays include the playfully lyrical "Top Girls'' and the ferocious satire "Serious Money,'' plunges into the swamp of English fairy lore here. The supporting characters include such figures as the Kelpie, Thrumpin and Johnny Squarefoot.
Director Patrick Dooley, his cast and ensemble designers go to town with it all. Capering and creeping around the stage in pig snouts, body paint and vulpine ears, the actors conjure up their Halloween tricks, including a Dionysian feast of cannibals. Scarier still is the gargoyle figure that silently observes Lily and Josie at home.
As the Skriker insinuates herself into Lily's life, Churchill's wild fantasy confirms the more modest warning that answered wishes can be lethal. Beware that handsome, androgynous-looking stranger in the park.
Caryl Churchill is certainly no slouch in the original voice department either. Her 1994 play The Skriker is a fairy tale in the truest sense, a fable embracing the ambiguous role of Celtic mythology in contemporary Britain. Gillian Chadsey is truly fantastic as the shape-shifting title character, who tirelessly invades the lives of the deeply disturbed Josie (Jennifer Taggart) and her friend Lily (Beth Donohue).
The evil Skriker and her fellow fairies, including Jenny Greenteeth and Rawheadandbloodybones, throng the present-day streets, invoked by wishes and sucking vitality from mortals. Rebuked by the mad Josie, who killed her own newborn baby, the Skriker is shunted to the expectant Lily, who welcomes or rejects the Skriker in her many guises. Initially Churchill's imaginative conception is rich and haunting, but the play loses its narrative drive halfway through, and the script's schematic repetition and run-on fairy language grow increasingly tiresome.
This Shotgun Players production is thrilling, however, with an energetic 17-member cast playing on multiple levels of Michael Frassinelli's underworldly set. In addition to Chadsey's remarkable performance, Taggart and Donohue both do splendid work. Director Patrick Dooley and choreographer Andrea Weber expand on the orchestrated chaos they formulated in The Bacchae and, together with Jake Rodriguez's visceral sound design, create some real mayhem based on Churchill's unsettling stage directions. Perhaps no image is more disturbing than a cursed passerby being forced to dance nonstop for the duration of the play, a Herculean feat wonderfully executed by Michelle Talgarow.
English feminist playwright Caryl Churchill's dark, dense, and difficult play The Skriker tells of an ancient and mythic world of "dark fairies," spirits who are hundreds of years old and who surreptitiously and malevolently take over the lives of present-day humans to nourish themselves. In a general sense, then, The Skriker is a vampire story. There is, of course, more to it than that.
Shotgun Players' intriguing production of this bizarre and complex work runs about 100 minutes with no intermission and employs a cast of more than 15 actors, many of them in multiple roles. The Skriker follows a series of 30 or 40 loosely structured scenes in which a dark fairy known as the Skriker (Gillian Chadsey) and her cohorts invest and haunt the lives of two young working-class English women, Josie (Jennifer Taggart) and Lily (Beth Donohue). Since dark fairies steal human babies to nurse their spirits, these two new unwed mothers and their children are at risk. In fact, a malevolent theme of childbirth and terrible infancy runs through the play. In part, The Skriker seems to be about the violent, painful, and tragic karmic implications of a child being born-an event usually romanticized as beautiful. Churchill also appears to be interested in negative and destructive female forces of nature, in pointed contrast to forces of female spirituality, seen traditionally as positive.
As a character, the Skriker takes many forms, and actor Chadsey's impressive performance is up to the challenge. She is a fairy, then a blonde American with a Texas accent, then an old woman, or a child playing hopscotch, or a smooth-operating lesbian hustler. At one point, she is the hostess at a dinner party in Hell, serving platters of food that contain a baby's head and other human organs. Eventually, the Skriker's assault on the two human women takes the form of a malignant love story.
Beth Donohue's none too bright, alternately trusting and frightened Lily is fascinating. Jennifer Taggart's tough, angry Josie demands control in a losing battle. Director Patrick Dooley, choreographer Andrea Weber and the rest of Shotgun's talented production team have devised a fluid, symbolic, and often non-linear staging, in which traditional theatre scenes alternate with shorter, impressionistic tableaux. Lighting designer Alex Lopez has created a variety of distinct spaces on the stage with the use of a minimal number of instruments. And sound designer Jake Rodriguez's appropriately jarring musical tracks effectively punctuate scene transitions.
Fair warning: This complex, esoteric and flat-out weird story is a difficult and demanding evening of theatre, and not for everyone. You will likely leave the theatre feeling there were parts of this play you didn't understand-and if that's your kind of theatre, this is a fine specimen.
Shotgun Players Face the Challenge of Caryl Churchill's Anti-Fairy Tale
When Caryl Churchill tells a fairy tale, it's not likely to conclude with happily ever after. In The Skriker, the author of Cloud 9, Top Girls and Mad Forest takes a surreal character from English folklore and brings it into the present to deliver a disturbing message about a world out of balance.
The Shotgun Players, the industrious, youthful troupe based in Berkeley, is offering the Bay Area premiere of Churchill's 1994 phantasmagoria, with the run split between both sides of the bay. Performances begin April 28 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley before moving on May 5 to the Warehouse Performance Space in San Francisco.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT ME?: For Caryl Churchill fans, this is a chance to see one of her most challenging works.
Churchill's title character a shapeshifter whose guises include a giant spider, an American tourist, an old crone, a pretty-in-pink fairy and a male psychotic. The skriker seeks to avenge its unsettled spirit by insinuating itself into the lives to two impressionable young women: one is pregnant and the other in a psych ward for killing her baby.
"I was certainly wanting to write a play about damage -- damage to nature and damage to people, both which there's plenty of about," the press-shy playwright told The New York Times in 1996. "To that extent, I was writing a play about England now. Where this didn't come from was any desire to write an escape into the airy-fairy." In its initial run at the Royal National Theatre and in the 1996 production at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, reviews were largely laudatory while stressing that The Skriker is a thick and challenging work. "Caryl Churchill's astonishing new work is hardly a source of comfort," critic Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, describing the play as "a toxic variation on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Every thing in The Skriker, even language, seems to be mutating." Patrick Dooley, artistic director of the Shotgun Players, is directing The Skriker. Andrea Weber is the choreographer.