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Eldritch Evil Roams the Earth

This is what it sounds like when the gods die. Out of the roiling chaos of a madwoman’s psychosis comes the Skriker (played by Jennifer Rand), an ancient fairy, forgotten by the descendents of the humans she used to terrify. She manifests herself first to Josie (Rachel Buchberger), an inmate in a mental institution who may have killed her own child. Josie, confused and beguiled by the Skriker’s confusing, insistent demands, wishes the spirit on her friend Lily (Katie Willer), who is pregnant and apparently sane. Enraged at the fact that her power is drained, that modern people have no need of her mickle powers, the Skriker stalks Lily and Josie, trying to elicit the belief she so craves.

Caryl Churchill’s play does not attempt to chart a course through this confusion, as much as it scatters breadcrumbs in a trackless wilderness, allowing the viewer to occasionally gobble a morsel of meaning, but for the most part leaving plenty of space to wander and ponder hungrily. This is not to say that the work is static. As presented by director Julie McGarvie, The Skriker is an enormously kinetic and accessible romp through madness and the macabre.

Most of the action takes place on a huge bed, replete with pillows, sheets and a ragged, crenellated bed frame of tubular steel. The bed is raised several feet off the ground like a boxing ring and it stands in for a variety of domestic and semi-domestic environments. First Josie’s room in the asylum, it becomes Lily’s apartment, a playground and even a chamber in whatever Hadean realm the Skriker inhabits. For all that, the bed-stage never really stops being a bed. It isn’t long before that queasy feeling you get from lying in bed too long when you ought to be active starts to set in.

The stage is not the only evocative element of the production however. The performances of the principals are wholly engaging. In addition to the three named above, Anna Safar as The Dead Girl is particularly unsettling when she creeps over, under, around and through the stage, grinning dementedly and occasionally popping up to deliver a line of dialogue in a spooky sing-song voice. Perhaps the only fly in the ointment is Willer’s delivery, which, while not stilted, does not flow as neatly. The supporting cast consists of a variety of archetypes (a tin soldier, a ballerina, a man in BDSM gear) who march and cavort in a style consistent with the play’s frequent dreamlike quality.

The variety of things happening on stage does not detract however from Churchill’s rich and heavily mannered use of language. Churchill is justifiably famous, both in theatrical and feminist circles, for her convoluted and intriguing phraseology. Most frequently compared to James Joyce, Churchill writes monologues for her characters that plumb hidden connections in seemingly commonplace cliches. When the Skriker explodes into one of these monologues, she spews words and phrases held together by the most tenuous connections. Despite the problems posed by convoluted syntax in lines like “Heard her boast beast a roast beef eater, daughter could spin span spick and spun the lowest form of wheat straw into gold,” there is space for the audience to create meaning and imagine import in the words. The Skriker also uses more conventional grammar to question our underlying assumptions about the way the universe works. At the beginning of the play, she corners Lily and relentlessly interrogates her about the mechanisms by which television works and airplanes fly. With that exchange, Churchill simultaneously questions our assumptions about the apparent supremacy of technology, and chills us to the marrow with the idea that we may also be called upon to explain the technologies we take for granted to a powerful supernatural being.

Despite The Skriker’s lack of a clear-cut conclusion and its decidedly feminist politics, there can be no doubt that Churchill is adept at making her ideas accessible to a general audience. The stream-of-consciousness dialogue is hardly as elliptical as Shakespeare’s streams of bawdy puns. The action provides sufficient context that it is impossible to become lost in the verbiage, even at its most opaque. The Skriker gambols and frolics through English, but never so quickly that we can’t catch up. This hair-raising Halloween gallimaufry should please even the sternest theater-goer.

The Skriker plays through Nov. 3 at Rarig Center, (612) 625-1876.
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