Pictured, from left : Tim Walker, Perry Olthuis, Suzette McCanny and Claire Armstrong
THE SKRIKER by Caryl Churchill (Red One Theatre/Theatre Brouhaha). At the Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor West). Runs to November 9, Wednesday-Sunday 8 pm. $15-$25. secureaseat.com. Rating: NNNNN
Caryl Churchill's 1994 play The Skriker is considered a work nearly impossible to stage.
In a splendid collaboration between Red One Theatre Collective and Theatre Brouhaha, director Daniel Pagett proves that in the right hands, it's one of her most theatrically exciting scripts.
At its centre is the Celtic title figure, a malevolent fairy-like creature who has a gruesome fascination with human infants. She/he/it takes an interest in two young women: Josie (Suzette McCanny), who has inexplicably killed her young child before the play begins, and the pregnant Lily (Perrie Olthuis), the friend who agrees to take the depressed Josie into her home.
Beleaguered by the Skriker in various forms - the being can take over the bodies of humans - the two women do their best to defend themselves and the baby that Lily gives birth to partway through the play.
Churchill's script tackles all sorts of topics, from postpartum depression to ecological concerns and various western myths, even taking us on a nightmarish trip to the underworld. She embeds this bubbling pot of themes in language that's challenging, impressionistic and occasionally dense, using wit and associative wordplay to move the ideas forward. Think of a macabre children's tale about changelings - young fairies exchanged for human infants - written in the style of James Joyce or Samuel Beckett.
This is the kind of script viewers can't react to intellectually, analyzing everything we hear and see, but rather instinctively, letting the visuals and the language wash over us and taking in what we can.
Pagett, who pulls off an extraordinary feat in his first directorial effort, makes sense of a difficult text by charting a firm through-line on language and story - there's no single right way to unravel this play - inspiring his actors to be clear, scary and darkly funny in equal measure. They play not only characters but also, in a bizarre but appropriate way, furniture and other pieces of the set.
The cast is wonderful, beginning with the mesmerizing Claire Armstrong as the lead Skriker, a bowler-hatted narrator who opens the show with a five-minute monologue filled with associative words and ideas. What follows - in a production that's part music hall, part fright fest, partdystopian tale - is the Skriker's pursuit of the two young women.
The other actors, in a variety of roles, are equally fine, with standout work by Karen Knox as a manipulative figure from the women's past, Luke Marty as a seductive wooer, Claire Burns as a street person, John Fleming as the verbally adept underworld king, Tim Walker as a canine and a sick old man, Jakob Ehman as a passerby who's never still and Andy Trithardt, both an adept actor and the writer/performer of the show's live, atmospheric soundscape.
Adding to the power of the productions are Holly Lloyd's phantasmagoria of a set, which looks like a yard sale made up of someone's junk, Kendra Terpenning's costumes and masks, Angela McQueen's hair and makeup and Melissa Joakim's spooky lighting.
The Skriker won't be to everyone's taste, but I consider this ambitious, stimulating production first-class indie theatre.