March 9 – April 15, 2001
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by: Frédérique Michel
Production Design by: Charles A. Duncombe, Jr.
Cast: Jonathan Cobb, Chris Codol, Michael Connelly, Jennifer Dion, David Frank, Ilana Gustafson, Dyan Kane, Katharina Lejona, Cynthia Mance, Jodi Moschetti, Cheryl Scaccio, Eric Talon, Veronica Valentine, Charlene Yang
March 14, 2001
‘The Skriker,’ Not a Kinder, Gentler Spirit
Compelling and sad, the otherworldly presence in Caryl Churchill’s play preys on earthbound humans with a vengeance.
Review by Michael Phillips, Times Theater Critic
Those unseen Irish hobgoblins of Conor McPherson’s “The Weir” would be tornapart, mercilessly, by the creatures inhabiting Caryl Churchill’s infinitely meaner play “The Skriker,” now at Santa Monica’s City Garage.
For her title character, a shape-changing spirit preying on vulnerable humans, Churchill (best known in America for “Cloud Nine” and “Top Girls,” two high points of late 20th century drama) invents a Joycean stream-of-consciousness language. The Skriker’s rantings feature such dillies as: “Oh dear what can the matterhorn piping down the valley wild horses wouldn’t drag me.” And: “Revengeance is gold mine, sweet. Fe fi fo fumbledown cottage pie crust my heart and hope to die.”
It’s not all like that, but in general it’s not “Blithe Spirit.” Even so, no play by Churchill should take seven years to show up in Los Angeles. “Blue Heart,” two short (and newer) linked pieces by Churchill, are far too interesting to justify a similar delay.
In “The Skriker,” Josie (Jody Moschetti) apparently has killed her baby. Lily (Cynthia Mance) is pregnant. The Skriker (Ilana Gustafson) has seduction in mind: She wants Lily’s unborn baby for herself.
The Skriker can recall a time when the real world and the spirit world acknowledged each other more openly. Those days are gone. Dogged, spiteful, the Skriker can make coins pour out of one victim’s mouth, as easily as she can bring live toads out of another’s.
The play is full of fantastical events, yet the key exchanges between Lily and Josie qualify as straight-up mordant realism. Churchill’s intermingling of the spirit and earthbound worlds is rather sad. And, if you’re inclined, compelling.
Frederique Michel’s City Garage staging is at once grave and eccentric–sometimes in sync with Churchill, sometimes out of it. There’s a hurtling craziness to the writing not fully revealed here. Director Michel’s rhythms tend toward the glacial. (Some productions of “The Skriker” clock in at 90 minutes; this one’s closer to two hours in length.)
But with a savvy performance from Gustafson in the lead, Churchill’s discombobulations have a clear, sturdy base. Essentially a three-hander, Churchill’s script calls for up to 16 actors–14 are used here–with the supporting players inhabiting the roles of various folkloric spooks. Michel’s vision incorporates some persuasively creepy mask designs (by Michele Gingembre and David Frank) and an especially evocative sound scape by Charles A. Duncombe Jr., who also did the set and lighting.
Through it all, Gustafson relishes each new assignment. The Skriker plays many roles, all of them well, but she’s destined for an eternity of disappointment in Churchill’s eyes–even if she comes out on top, which is to say, even if Earth gives up the ghost. A lot of people will no doubt stare at this play. One London critic called it “as baffling an experience as you are likely to encounter in a theatre.” Others admired it. It stuck with me. A little below Churchill’s best, it’s still Churchill.
As the Skriker says in the play, speaking of herself: “Not a major spirit, but a spirit.”