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Goblins at Every Turn

If you remember Caryl Churchill‘s Top Girls, Cloud Nine, Serious Money or Mad Forest, you’ll recall these plays as being about people -- often ice-hearted women -- striving to accrue the same riches and power as the men around them, or tearing at the fabric of such wealth and success and being emotionally bludgeoned for their trouble. Churchill, among the finest living English dramatists, has spent the better part of her literary career critiquing the costs of Empire, be it corporate or other. She may be an idealist but she‘s no fool, having earned her daunting reputation by twisting together the copper filaments of tragedy and moral outrage, then charging them with a poetical voltage matched, in this country, only by the likes of David Mamet, Mac Wellman and Suzanne Lori Parks.

Churchill’s 1994 The Skriker, receiving its long overdue Southern California premiere at Santa Monica‘s City Garage, marks the midpoint of the playwright’s shift away from any semblance of conventional dramaturgy toward a presentation of folkloric images and dreamily compacted language. (Churchill‘s latest works, Blue Heart and Far Away, both of which premiered last year in London, rarefy their language with even more obscure references and uncompromising demands upon the audience than The Skriker -- which, borrowing from the writings of John Milton, William Blake and T.S. Eliot, frequently mixes medieval phrasing and contemporary pop slang into a kind of Joycean composite lingo that bridges the centuries.)

“I’ve been a hairy here he is changeling changing chainsaw massacre massive a sieve to carry water from the well well what‘s to be done?” goes the opening monologue that welcomes you onto The Skriker’s skiff. Bon voyage. And take heed. Churchill‘s play works from the idea that in earlier epochs, and despite such inconveniences as starvation, religious persecution and rampaging armies, there was always comfort to be had in the beauty of nature and the dependability of her seasons, whereas today there’s not even that. The Skriker has the same macabre undertow as the English puppet show Shockheaded Peter, but without the music or the sarcasm.

More specifically, The Skriker concerns the relationship between mortals and sprites, initially focusing on a contemporary woman named Josie (Jody Moschetti), whose appearance, early in the play, in a mental ward may, for skeptics, justify the sight of so many Celtic faeries and goblins lurking in all corners of the stage. The Skriker, described by the author as “a shape-shifter and death portent, ancient and damaged,” attaches herself to Josie and later to Josie‘s pregnant friend, Lily (Cynthia Mance). If one is unfamiliar with North-of-England folklore, the program provides some helpful signposts: Otherworldlings relish babies, often seizing them and leaving in their stead “changelings” -- goblins that are the spit and image of the baby they replaced.

In place of a plot, Churchill provides a gallery of mythic beasts (sundry Brownies, the Bogle, the Spriggan, the Kelpie, Johnny Squarefoot, Rawheadandbloodybones), a soup of words and a series of tensions distributed among the trio of the Skriker, Josie and Lily. The Skriker shows up in dreams and bars and parks, each time with new attire and dialect, each time aching for possession of the two young women in general, and of Lily’s unborn child in particular. Among the strengths of Frederique Michel‘s staging is the performance of Ilana Gustafson -- a dank, ferocious interpretation of the Skriker as archly stylized as the writing. The three central characters even bear vague resemblances to one another, a concept further supported by Josie’s and Lily‘s identical wigs.

Michel’s penchant for excess, however, loosens the very knot she ties with her keen direction of the principals. As though merely for the sake of showing off Michele Gingembre and Erin Vincent‘s impressive masks, as well as the exotic costumes by Paul Rubenstein, the faeries tend to hang around, often en masse, gaping at the mortals, when any child can tell you that ghost stories depend on smoke and shadows and figures glimpsed from the corner of an eye. As the Skriker spews one of her linguistically dense soliloquies, a svelte young beauty in a provocative red dress fondles the phallic snout of the half-manhalf-horse Kelpie, pretty much sending the Skriker’s monologue up the horse‘s nose. Charles A. Duncombe’s set bifurcates the stage into an upstage rope-lattice forest and an open downstage area for the urban environs. Churchill‘s play is about the way those two regions melt into one, and the key to her mystery lies in the delicacy of that subconscious fold -- a delicacy here wanting.