May 05, 2005

The Skriker

An email went out about 5pm tonight from Liz Carlin-Metz, a theatre prof and director of this term's mainstage show, reminding us that said show in fact opens tonight and runs through the weekend and we should go see it. I'd planned to see it Friday, but what the heck, I wasn't doing anything tonight. So I went to see The Skriker, by Caryl Churchill.

I have to give two separate reviews for it. The reasons for this will hopefully come clear at the end. Taken together (or, for that matter, separately), these reviews conspired to make my 700th blog entry a loooong one, so I've placed them below the fold:

Review 1

It is the rare perfect confluence of playwright, actors, director, and conditions that let a play bring a viewer immediately into its world. There's usually some stage setting to be done, and for the first few minutes you are watching the play, before you get to experience the play.

So it wasn't really too surprising that I wasn't immediately taken with the opening monologue. But usually I can get the hang of the play within the first few minutes. This play, not so much. It begins with an almost completely unintelligible string of words uttered by the Skriker herself, as she capers about the stage in a twisty, unearthly dance. The babble is very stream-of-consciousness, and pivots on one word after another from phrase to phrase: "gone with the -wind-ow cleaner", "trousers to -wear- have you gone?" There is just enough comprehensibility to convey the fact that some meaning is intended, but you're certainly not going to get it on first hearing, and probably not at all without reading it. (Subtitles would have helped. Where are those augmented-reality geeks when you need them?) And it was long—five pages, I'm told, and it seemed to stretch on forever, though I suppose it was in reality only four or five minutes. It certainly did not make me hopeful for the rest of the show.

"Experimental" is the best word I can come up with for the early part of the show. Loud feedback-y noise and flashing strobes at the scene changes; this gibberish monologue; the music visualiser video projected onto the back wall*; the ever-changing ensemble of mythical characters wandering around in the sidestages. The stage itself had three three-foot-diameter pentagonal holes and one flush-mounted door down into the trap space, but was otherwise fairly conventional, and the lighting and sound (other than during scene changes) was likewise pretty straightforward.

Actually, the holes were a major source of tension in the first act. Back when I was doing a lot of ballroom competitions, a few of us came up with a rule that a dance costume, however good-looking, was a bad one if it was suspenseful: if I am worried that you'll fall out of it, trip on it, or hit somebody with it, I'm distracted from your dancing. And this is what I was reminded of with these holes. In the second scene, there is a hospital bed on wheels perhaps a foot away from the hole, with two characters hopping on and off, and every time they do so it moves, teetering ever closer. I had a hard time paying attention to anything they said, it was so distracting. This suspense continued to a lesser extent as various cast members wandered right past their edge, and occasionally casually backing up towards them. Even in the second act, by which point I was mostly at peace with them, I still occasionally snapped out of the show to wonder whether someone was going to fall in. Very unfortunate. (Not sure how to fix it, though, really. The hospital bed could be moved out slightly, I guess, but the rest is sort of inherent in the design, which I otherwise quite like. :P)

The ensemble dressed as assorted mythological characters (in some most excellent costumes) were their own set of distractions, though that was a little more in-game, as it were. It really makes me wonder what goes through their head, when their job for two hours is to slowly wander around the stage and just move in character. Seems very hard, actually.

As the first act dragged on, there was less dragging, less staring off into the rafters, and I finally started being able to follow the thread of the thing, sort of. In one scene we saw a lead (Lily) talking to a businesswoman who I immediately recognised as Eden Newmark, the infuriating sister I liked so much in Proof.** But who was she supposed to be? I thought there were only three characters. Was she supposed to be the Skriker? What about the other person who was playing the Skriker? Of course, it soon became clear that the Skriker was Newmark all the way down; it's just that the change of costume, accent, and demeanour was so complete that she was unrecognisable at first. In fact, though she kept returning to the rag-clad, spider-walking, Scots-accented*** base Skriker persona, she must've gone through a dozen other characters over the course of the show, making for some really fast costume changes and not a few accent and carriage changes as well. Whatever I might think about the play, she certainly did a good job carrying it.

Which is not at all to diminish the contributions of the other two leads, either. Sylvie Davidson (Lily) was great as usual, and Saras Gil (Josie) looks like a promising addition to the local theatre crowd. They had a good chemistry (ooh, that sounds so cliché) and did a good job portraying, respectively, the naïve and fearful, and the perceptive and despairing, reactions to the evil Skriker; neither one quite able to resist the seductive temptation of easily granted wishes.

So like I said, I finally started following the narrative thread, such as it was, and just as I was warming to the thing... a blaring scene change, and suddenly we're in, what, the underworld? Things go all bizarro again and I don't know what the hell is going on.

Intermission. The lights come up and I immediately dive into the dramaturgical analysis in the program, which at least explains a bit of what's going on. (But what kind of show is it, if you need to consult the Cliff's Notes even to get a basic idea about it?) After describing how the play departs from tradition (boy howdy), it frames the play as an examination of the vulnerability of Woman, responses to the feminist backlash of the 80s, and the symbiosis of humans and their environment. (The name "Gaia" shows up at this point.) Ok, that's something, I guess.

The program also describes all the mythological characters with the cool costumes: the Satyr Priest, who is walking on stilts shaped like goat feet; the Southern Belle, wearing a gorgeous big red ballgown and a gas mask; the Unicorn, wearing an Equus-style wire frame horse head with a big horn mounted on top; and several others, including my personal favourite, Black Annis (played by Helen Drysdale). The costume for that was a mask mounted on the back of the head and a dress with fake boobs stuffed in the back; at one point she was in the down-in-front hole in the floor and moving like all the other mythological characters, but of course she was moving backwards, sort of. Squinting slightly and watching this totally distracted me from whatever the Skriker was saying at that point, because it looked so creepy and cool.

Act 2 begins by situating the end of Act 1; now I get how it fits into the rest of the story. And armed with the descriptions of the program, I can kind of follow the plot (such as it is). Even so, there are things that make no sense. Why does the Skriker need to do this? Is the Skriker's apparent desperation real, or just an act to induce pity? What the heck is Josie doing down there---is she trying to fool the Skriker, and if so, what is that supposed to accomplish? Does Lily actually want this to happen, or is she just blinded by the temptations?

Finally, suddenly, at the end, we get hit over the head with The Moral Of The Story, which seems to involve something about stewardship of society and the environment, which has little to do with anything that came before; it really hits like a non-sequitur. (Nice biohazard suits, though.)

Verdict: I didn't really like this show.

* When I was in high school, we called this curtain forming the back wall something that is easy to pronounce, but I have no idea how to spell it. "Sike"? "Psych"? "Cyc"? I have no idea what it's short for, and therefore no educated guesses on its spelling, and my dictionary isn't giving me any leads. Why couldn't they pick something easy to spell, like "proscenium"?

** Strictly speaking, I recognised her as the infuriating sister from Proof---the name I looked up later. :)

*** I suppose it was North English, because Liz Metz knows way more about British dialects than I do, but it sounded Scottish to me. In any case, excellent dialect work all around, with just a very few noticeable clunks.

Interlude: after the show

I happened to be sitting with Brian Tibbets and Megan Scott, who were chatting with Craig Choma (all three Knox alums, overlapping by a year or two), and he offered to show them the slide and traps, so I latched onto that group. Two observations: that slide is really damn steep; and we here at Knox have got to have about the best stage area in the world.

Review 2

After checking out the stage, I stood out in the lobby reading the dramaturgy boards---a regular feature of mainstage shows whereby various local theatre folks pull together notes about œuvre of the playwright, the genre of the play, the milieu of both the play and the playwright, and literate reviews of the play**** from other theatre academics. All this stuff is tacked up on some boards for interested theatregoers to read.

After a few minutes of that, I had some conversations about the show with various members of cast and crew, and later with the director. I walked out to my car with her, and she was able to fill me in on some of the context and background; it softened me up quite a bit to the show.

The main thing was really sort of a meta-thing. During the show and immediately afterwards, it irritated me that I had to read the program and notes just to figure out what was going on. However, some literature and a lot of textbooks and academic papers take time and effort, and frequently outside information, to digest and understand. Why must theatre be different? There certainly are many shows that are self-contained; there are also pulp fiction novels and pop science articles, but those don't define their respective media, either. Furthermore, as Liz pointed out, the question should not be, "If I can't understand it without outside help, what's the point?". The question should be, "If I set it aside after seeing it and never think about it again, then what's the point?". Just so.

Looking backwards through the show, I can now clearly see that the ending wasn't as much of a non sequitur as it at first seemed (nor indeed was it so clear-moral-riffic as I indicated above). I can see several places in the show that allude to a tension between modern humans and their society and environment. In music theory, we've been learning how dissonances (sevenths, suspensions) are usually prepared in advance: the chord just before a dissonant one will contain the dissonant note, but that note is still consonant at that point. That's just what happens in this play. In scenes throughout the show, there are brief allusions to the loneliness of modern life, its divergence from community, from the earth, and from the mythical-spiritual world. At the time, you think nothing of them; but looking back from the other side of the discordant tones struck in the final scene, they can be reanalysed as preparations therefor.

The business about feminism and Woman makes a bit more sense after further contemplation, too. If Lily and Josie are seen as two instances of archetypal Woman, we can spin out the events of the play into an allegory where the Skriker, as Tradition, does everything she can to turn them into breeding machines, whose chief purpose in existence is procreative, making babies and giving their lifeblood to sustain the Skriker (Tradition). Killing a baby (is this an abortion reference?) doesn't rescue you from the pull of tradition, nor does anything else. Giving in may let you in the end continue your life as before, or on the other hand it may consume the remainder of your life.

Or, perhaps the struggle is more about the Skriker's invitation to partake of her wish-granting—stay with me, she says, and I will grant you whatever you want—set against the women's (Woman's) desire to make their own way, even as they (as Liz put it) "come apart at the seams". But what does the final scene of devastation represent in this model? The results of women making their own way? Is this end seen as inevitable, or preventable?

Possibly we can read it on a level closer to the surface, echoing a theme seen in a lot of fantasy novels including the venerable Lord of the Rings: the age of faeries is coming to an end, to be replaced with an age of Man; the denizens of Faerie can feel the change, their power ebbing, and they try to fight it. If the reading is along these lines, the text certainly comes down strongly on one side: the world will be a far worse place if we lose our connection to our mythological spirit world, and to Gaia, the very embodiment of the living planet that sustains us.

These interpretations are not remotely exhaustive, obviously. But all the readings I can come up with right now have something or other that I'd take issue with. On the other hand, I feel ill-equipped to debate against them, because it feels too much like I've set up a straw man to knock down. Aside from being a generally shady rhetorical technique, once you're called on your use of a straw man, the entire argument becomes suspect. The problem is, I have nothing but straw men to argue against here: can I disagree with something if it was never clearly stated in the first place? Such, I guess, is the nature of engaging this sort of text. (And engaging it must be, to inspire me to write 2600 words about it... jeez, I should get course credit for this.)

So where does that leave me? A lot of the questions I asked in the first review are still unanswered in my mind, but they no longer contribute to a great chaos as they did before. I'm still dissatisfied with where it went, and the ending still seems a bit glib. Now that I see where it was going, I suppose the unintelligible initial monologue makes a bit more sense (though I still wish it weren't so long). A lot of it seems clearer in hindsight.

Verdict: I didn't really like this show, and I didn't like it so much that I think I have to go see it again.

**** Sorry, ran out of cool French words. ;)

UPDATE: See next post for review number three.

"Next year, we're hoping that the Headline Club defines the category differently, narrowly and in a way that plays better to our strengths--- perhaps asking the judges to 'look for offhand observations, snark and the coolest links to places on the Web where you can fritter away the precious hours of the one and only life you will ever have.'" --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 2:58am on 5 May 2005
I wanted to express the gratitude of the theatre community for your honest and insightful reviews. Whether thumbs up or a thumbs down on a show, the opinion of an educated audience member is so valuable to us, both personally and as a part of our education. When your blog comes out, everyone is eager to read it and it is the talk of the theatre!! (like all those corny movies about Broadway shows when everyone waits with baited breathe for the reading of the New York Times review!) So thank you, Don, on behalf of everyone! P.S. The cloth hanging at the back of the stage is called a "cyclorama" or "cyc"! Posted by Helen Drysdale at 8:45pm on 5 May 2005
well, we did skriker for our exam. 2nd year drama as our production and thought it was really beautiful. saw the other skrikers on you tube and ours was the best. SOUTH AFRICA(UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU NATAL, PMB CAMPUS) 2nd year drama students we did a great job... and our director Diana Wilson we took Skriker to another level. Posted by thandeka( bumble) at 5:52pm on 2 Jun 2010
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