The Sisters Grimm

Gillian Chadsey stars in The Skriker

The word "skriker" refers to a shapeshifting death portent in English mythology, but skriken is also Swedish for "scream," which is not a bad description of Caryl Churchill's play. The Skriker is, or wants to be, a howl of pain. It's a brief story about two young Englishwomen. One of them, Lily, is pregnant; the other, Josie, has just smothered her 10-day-old baby. That's the situation. There would be nothing to it if more than two dozen grotesque mythical figures didn't fatten up the cast, dancing around the women like psychological haunts to lend The Skriker the bizarre power of a dream.

Let's start with the reasons the play is good. First, Gillian Chadsey. Her performance as the Skriker is a tour de force. She delivers the opening speech -- a four-page piece of utter gibberish -- with an intense, nervous engagement that would have you believe she was talking sense. In a tight bodysuit with gauzy wings she stalks around the bare stage in perfect control of her voice, body, and quicksilver moods. "Put my hand to the baby and scissors seizures seize you sizzle," she says. "Or garlic lickety split me in two with the stink bombastic." Ordinarily I don't have patience for what people call "Joycean wordplay," because no one but Joyce can make it sound natural, and even Churchill's words as written seem forced, hobbled here and there by ordinary logic. But onstage Chadsey invests them with fierce or tender emotion that makes pure visceral sense, and her opening scene is breathtaking.

Jennifer Taggart and Beth Donohue are also excellent as the young women. Taggart plays Josie as an edgy, disturbed post-adolescent in tight shirt and leather belt, cynical and mean to the more-hopeful Lily, but also fragile, grief-wracked. (Her breakdown near the climax of the play is ferocious.) And Donohue's performance as Lily has a sweet, well-pitched sadness and innocence that contrasts not just with Josie but also with her pregnant belly and cockneyish voice. She's especially good trying to explain television in a scene with the Skriker. "Say it's live, it's coming -- not the whole picture in the air obviously, it's in bits like waves, you need an aerial to ...." Her earnest but failed effort to clarify modern technology to an ancient mythological spirit, who in this case wears a lime-green pantsuit and talks like an Alabama housewife, is one of the pleasures of the show.

A Tour de Force: Gillian Chadsey as the Skriker.
Katrina Webb
A Tour de Force: Gillian Chadsey as the Skriker.

Details

By Caryl Churchill. Directed by Patrick Dooley. Produced by the Shotgun Players. Starring Gillian Chadsey, Jennifer Taggart, Beth Donohue, Christopher Kuckenbaker, and a cast of dozens. At the Warehouse Performance Space, 1850 Cesar Chavez (near Connecticut), through June 4. Admission is $10-15; call (510) 655-0813

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And the huge cast of fairies and child-robbing monsters stakes out a vivid dream-territory that most plays never touch. You have Johnny Squarefoot, Jenny Greenteeth, Yallery Brown, a bogle, Rawheadandbloodybones, Black Dog, and various thrumpins. They assemble for a Walpurgisnacht scene in which the Skriker leads Josie into the underworld: A half-naked woman sprinkles fairy dust, a tattered bride dances, the Skriker wears a dress with twigs and leaves, a naked boy in a red mask carries a flaming clay pot, and surly figures spread a table with a banquet involving a baby's head. It's all set to pounding, rhythm-heavy music, and the fact that it works -- as a coherent impression of Josie's madness instead of a random assemblage of freaks -- does credit to Patrick Dooley's directing and the ensemble's costume designs.

But even this production can't overcome a weakness in the script, which is that somewhere near the middle you stop caring about Josie and Lily. Their story gets lost. The play reminds me of Ti-Jean and His Brothers by Derek Walcott, the Nobel-winning playwright who's been singularly, and strangely, neglected by theaters in the Bay Area. In Ti-Jean, a Caribbean mother is haunted by a bolom, the ghost of her aborted son. Frogs speak; the devil pays a visit in the form of an old man. It's not as wild or messy as The Skriker, but classical simplicity works in its favor, because the drama never slackens. If Churchill -- who writes for London's Royal Court Theater -- had given her story such a straight and simple treatment, she would have exposed it as boring.

The Skriker seems at first glance to be a work of startling genius, but most of the brilliance lies on the surface. This is a disappointment, but not a lethal one. It's still a risky and fascinating play, which the Shotgun Players have mounted with their usual energy in a tall room at the Warehouse Performance Space, on the far side of Potrero Hill.

 
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