Birth of a Notion
The set is an arrangement of black platforms and boxes. It stretches a long, long way back so that -- despite the overall intimacy of the theater -- an actor standing in the rear looks very small and far away. Periodically, grotesque forms limp, shamble or crawl around this space. Presiding over them is a magical, shape-shifting creature called the Skriker.
With The Skriker, playwright Caryl Churchill has written a fairy tale, but its characters are not the poetic jokesters of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or the diaphanous-winged homunculi loved by the Victorians. They are kelpies, bogels, bogeymen, black dogs and spiteful spriggans, remnants of ancient legend, decayed versions of Celtic gods and goddesses, spirits of plants, stones and animals, haunters of England's bogs and woods, and they rise from the deepest recesses of the human psyche.
The Skriker is pursuing two young women. When the play opens, one of them, Josie, is in an institution: Suffering from postpartum depression, she killed her baby. Her friend Lily, who is visiting her, is pregnant.
I wasn't able to distinguish every word of the script: Churchill's Skriker speaks in puns, allusions, feverish exclamations, non sequiturs, approximations of common phrases, bits of fairy tale and nursery rhyme, sound associations and nonsense; her words melt into each other like the people and places of a dream. And I'm not sure I took in every visual image, either. But even if it lacks ordinary structure and logic, the play has emotional consistency and a clear through line. The Skriker needs something from the women, and it's connected to their fertility. She's not an all-powerful fairy; she can be thwarted, ignored or foiled. How the situation turns out will depend on how cleverly Josie and Lily handle her and on how they relate to each other. Their relationship is sometimes treacherous and sometimes supportive. Josie tries to protect Lily; Lily cares for Josie. But Lily makes the mistake -- again and again -- of pitying the Skriker.
Churchill's play has been interpreted as an indictment of our devastation of the earth, as suggesting that the destruction of the environment has stirred up a horde of muttering and malevolent avengers. I saw the play's focus differently, although I don't know whether my interpretation came more from the script itself or from Ian Tresselt's direction. For me, the play was all about motherhood.
When a woman gives birth, she makes herself vulnerable in previously unimagined ways. On the most literal level, she has no idea how this new little creature will affect her life or who she will become because of it. (Margaret Atwood has a wonderful short story in which a woman enters a hospital to give birth and leaves it a different person entirely.) Nor does the mother know what impact the child will have in the world, whether she's produced an accountant or a drunk, a Georgia O'Keeffe or a Hitler. Birth is so commonplace a miracle that we forget how huge it is. Add to this the fact that after childbirth, women tend to float in a sea of hormones, a fluxy, heightened state that's blissful for some, nightmarish for others, and certainly conducive to all kinds of illusion. If ever the veil between the real and the supernatural worlds is likely to be lifted, this is the time.
In his director's note, Tresselt reiterates the story of poor, Christ-driven Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children because they weren't "developing correctly." (It says something about cultural differences that women like Josie receive treatment and eventual release in England, while Yates -- who must already be suffering the torments of the damned -- was given life in prison by a Texas court and could have been executed.)
Many murderous mothers claim their dead children were possessed or in some sense satanic. A peculiar variation on the theme arose in the United States some years ago when therapists began arguing that babies from the spartan orphanages of Russia, China and Romania could be so profoundly damaged as to be unreachable or even dangerous. They called this "reactive attachment disorder." In Colorado, an adoptive mother by the name of Renee Polreis beat her two-year-old Russian son to death and tried to claim that he himself had caused his injuries. To complicate matters, occasionally -- though this is very rare -- a child is born so violent and rage-filled (presumably because his chemistry's out of whack) that he does indeed seem satanic.
In Churchill's play, it may have been the Skriker who caused Josie's infanticide. It's possible, in fact, that all of the play's supernatural grotesqueries are manifestations of Josie's madness. The Skriker herself is oddly empty, a vessel picking up whatever's in the air around her and endlessly adapting to the needs of the moment. She becomes whatever she's required to be to seduce whichever of the two women she has in her sights at the moment: an old crone; a nosy, technology-obsessed American tourist; a seducer; a lonely child. She plays each role with conviction for a few moments, goofs like a tourist trying to imitate a native, tosses the persona aside when it's no longer useful.
For a while, Josie can protect Lily from the Skriker. She's grief-hardened and more cynical than her friend. But yearning empowers the creature, and who can refrain from yearning for long?
Lily gives birth. There are some beautiful moments here as she exclaims over the sheer miraculousness of her baby's fingers. Then Josie tries to convince Lily that the child's a changeling who must be burned. "I wish Josie wasn't mad," cries Lily. Bingo, Josie's sane. But she's grieving so desperately over her murdered child that Lily retracts her wish. With a Skriker lurking around, this much wishing is dangerous.
The action of The Skriker, like its language, is filled with echoes of fairy tale and myth. Lily is nice to the Skriker, and as a reward, coins fall from her mouth with every word she speaks. By contrast, frosty Josie is made to spit toads. Like Persephone, Josie descends into the underworld and is told that if she eats or drinks anything, she can never return home. At one point, the Skriker makes an oblique reference to the old Mother Goose rhyme "Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clemens." Later, when we see Lily moving across the stage with a candle, we supply the nursery rhyme's final lines: "Here comes a candle to light you to bed. Here comes a chopper to chop off your head."
Tresselt has staged a skilled and evocative production, a kind of ever-changing and mesmerizing freak show in which a workman with a bucket isn't really a workman, a middle-aged woman wanders through the wasteland with a cocktail glass in her hand, the dead speak, and all kinds of creatures loiter in the shadows, waiting for us to stumble. Emily Paton Davies is a convincing and commonsensical Josie; Megan Meek's performance as Lily is a little more diffuse, and she's tripped up now and then by the English accent. It's Mare Trevathan Philpott's artistry and intelligence as the Skriker, however, that galvanize. She inhabits each of the creature's various manifestations body and soul. Despite the endless flow of changes, there's no muddiness in Philpott's characterization; every impulse is clear. It was a terrific performance on opening night, and I imagine it's even more so now that Philpott has a few performances under her belt.
I left the theater feeling profoundly thoughtful, wanting to know more, to read the script and see how the language held up, to return for a second viewing. The Skriker is brave, mind-bending theater, the kind we don't see often enough.
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