Paul Joseph Brown
Like its shape-shifting title character, this production of Caryl Churchill's The Skriker is spooky, venomous, seductive, and confounding, depending on which moment you slice out and examine. Though it has goblins and curses, The Skriker isn't just spooky in a superficial, cheap-Halloween-decorations sense. Between Churchill's anxious text about teenage mothers in a gritty English city, Janice Findley's moody direction, and Pat Graney's unnerving choreography, this production echoes the darker telltale heart beating inside the play.
In English mythology, a skriker haunts travelers and is tough to shake. In some accounts, to ignore it will bring bad luck, but to attack it brings disaster. In short, you're stuck with the fucker. Churchill's Skriker, played by Mary Ewald, is a pitiful and malevolent old woman—in the stage directions, a "death portent, ancient and damaged"—who follows Josie (a haunted Mariel Neto) and Lily (a more sincere and innocent Jessica Martin).
The two are paragons of vulnerability: When the play begins, Josie, in a fit of madness probably induced by the Skriker, has killed her baby and landed in a mental hospital. Lily is pregnant and nervous but agrees to move into an apartment with Josie, to help her get back on her feet. The Skriker follows, shape-shifting as she goes—she becomes a brash American in a bar, a pushy suitor in the apartment, a grasping little girl in a city park—and handing down blessings and curses. Sometimes the girls vomit up money. Sometimes they vomit up frogs. Sometimes they are spirited away to a dangerous underworld of supernatural (perhaps sub-natural) creatures played by Seattle dancers (Aaron Swartzman, Cathy Sutherland, Christian Swenson, others).
Dread permeates The Skriker: Goblins perch on the backs of unsuspecting businessmen, grim creatures dance fairy tales with ominous and opaque gestures, a water fountain spirits people away. The confusing laws that govern these creatures' universe, and the confusion about what they actually want from humans, is part of the unease: Sometimes they are invisible; sometimes they aren't. (In one eerily lovely moment by designer Timothy Siciliano, the Skriker is half-visible, melding herself into the young mothers' living-room couch.) The creatures seem to desire babies, and attention, and to bother people.
The Skriker, at least, seems to want revenge on humans for blasting her ancient forests into a concrete jungle, and she speaks in dovetailed clichés that mangle English into a collage of creepy images:
Metal cross cross me out cross my heartburn sunburn sunbeam in my eyelash your back... Or pin prick cockadoodle do you feel it? But if the baby has no name better nick a name, better Old Nick than no name, because then we can have the snap crackle poppet to bake and brew and broody more babies...
All this undulating language and imagery threatens to fly apart into an incoherent mess, but dancer Amelia Reeber (cast simply as "the passerby") gives The Skriker a kinetic and poetic center of gravity. She is nearly always onstage somewhere, moving with a combination of fluidity and control that, at times, makes her look almost like an automaton. Graney's choreography for Reeber's part mixes pop/go-go dance with more primal gestures, bridging the gap between the fairies' ancient world and the young mothers' contemporary one. The Skriker is disturbing, but Reeber's constant motion is the grace note that holds this challenging, impressionistic show together.