It’s the tale of a pariah who, through no fault of her own, becomes a target of others' ridicule. The narrative is spun by a corpse named Her — a feisty troubled spirit who, freed at last from the shackles of her mortal disfigurement, can now freely tell her tale and comment upon it.
Her (Kinevane) comes into view on a dark stage lit by a streak of gold (a swath of glistening gold fabric stretching from floor to ceiling). She emerges slowly from her crypt, carbon black from head to toe (remarkable costuming by Catherine Condell), except for her gold phosphorescent lips and lids, and ornamental paint on the upper left side of her face. Then the specter begins to chat, up close and personal with the audience, informing us where we are — a cemetery in County Cork, Ireland — and telling a joke about the Pope and the Queen before proceeding to the painful story of her life.
Her’s nightmare begins with a seminal act of fate when, struck by lightning at age 9, her skin is burned, her features made horribly distorted. In high school she’s reviled and shunned as a dog and worse. The only one to treat her decently is a boy named Jasper, a handsome blonde from a wealthy family, whose kindness for a brief time provides respite from her loneliness. His compassion is almost too good to be true — as indeed, it cruelly turns out to be.
Directed by Jim Culleton, Underneath is a dense soulful piece of writing, embedded with the images and irony we’ve come to expect from the best of Irish drama, and embellished by composer Denis Clohessy’s haunting sound design and original music, and the extraordinary lighting by Kinevane, Cullerton and, for the Odyssey, Katelan Braymer. Kinevane breaks up the grim narrative with anecdotes, improvisation and fourth-wall shattered conversations with individuals in the audience. Some of his satiric commentary relates to contemporary fashion shows and TV makeovers. (it’s something of a jolt to realize the story he’s spinning is taking place in the here and now, so distant and other worldly is the place it transports us to.)
Despite the comic intervals, it’s impossible not to respond to the searing pain of this unjustly afflicted soul and the unpleasant truth at the core of her experience — the emphasis on appearances in our society as the measure of the worth of an individual. The play can also be seen as an exploration of victimization — the denial of humanity to anyone who may be different in any way, be it one person or —as with genocide — a group. It’s a truth whose timeliness, alas, never seems to fade.
GO! Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Sawtelle; through Oct. 30.( 310) 477-2055, odysseytheatre.com.
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