WAKEFIELD, R.I. — Wakefield’s Contemporary Theater Company invites audiences outside onto the Riverfront Performance Patio for its fall show, “The Skriker,” by celebrated playwright Caryl Churchill, well-known for her experimental and surrealistic approach. The show is fitting for this time of year, as the transition from late summer to autumn invites divergent, but not mutually exclusive, impulses.
Fall rituals and traditions provide comfort from the encroaching dark and cold, while the changing of the season opens our senses to the uncanny, magical and macabre. Under the rising moon at the edge of night, the outdoor setting on the banks of Saugatucket provides a stimulating atmosphere for this one-act play (about 75 minutes in length) which thrives in the in-between spaces between truth and illusion, sanity and madness, the supernatural and apocalyptical.
Written in the 1990s, “The Skriker” is a complex, dissonant, and disorienting play that confounds expectations, but offers much to theatrical interpreters. The experience created by co-directors Maggie Cady and Ashley Macamaux retains the play’s complexity and openness, while bringing together storytelling, language, movement, music and imagery in service of the play’s magic, horror, and psychology. Enhanced by the chill of dusk, CTC’s production is indeed an experience – intimate and immersive, but with a sense of the vast outdoors which traces the play’s connective bridges between the cosmic and the personal. CTC’s staging is dynamic and unconventional, with a few dozen seats (blankets provided) arranged in small clusters across the patio while the performance takes place in and around the audience. The stage has no center, and no defined boundaries between performer and spectator, or on stage and off. With a cast of supernatural creatures looming and creeping in from all sides, the effect is at once playful and unsettling.
The play concerns itself with a central figure, the Skriker, described as “a shapeshifter and death portent, ancient and damaged.” This alluring and menacing fairy has attached itself to two young women, Josie and Lily, granting sinister wishes and making repeated attempts under various guises to lure them away to the underworld. The audience is introduced to the women in a mental hospital where Josie is being held as a result of her baby’s death. Lily, who is pregnant, is tempted to plead for Josie’s release. Josie promises not to hurt Lily’s baby, while also admonishing Lily that she would be worried, “if she had any sense.” The play indulges in such paradoxes with a dark humor and a sense of the absurd.
The play unfolds with an episodic, rather than linear, form, punctuated by vignettes of dialogue, pantomime, and wordplay. Churchill’s linguistic experimentation is among the play’s most jarring devices. The damaged Skriker spills out slippery, linguistically intricate passages in which words are connected through a poetic logic. In her extended opening prologue, the Skriker declares, “I spin the sheaves shoves shivers into golden guild and geld and if she can’t guessing game and safety match my name then I’ll take her no mistake no mister no missed her no mist no miss no me no.”
Christine Cauchon offers a rich performance in the title role, with a crisp and fluent control of her character’s wordplay. Cauchon is particularly in her element switching between the Skriker’s different manifestations, including a nurse, a lost child, a demanding boyfriend — even a couch. Maggie Papa and Emily Rodriguez enjoy good chemistry as Josie and Lily. One poignant scene has Lily wishing to the Skriker that “Josie wasn’t mad.” The granting of the wish, however, immediately causes the weight of reality to consume Josie, and Lily quickly reverses the wish, pleading, “I wish you were like before I wished.” Papa’s strong performance locates diffused moments of vulnerability in Josie underneath the hard, troubled exterior. As a counterpoint, Rodriguez has softer edges, but a strong core. Her character is tempted by the Skriker, but capable of pushing back sharply. Lily’s choices by the play’s finale have weight as deliberate and dignified, rather than impulsive.
A folkloric circus of the undead with names like Dark Fairy, Black Annis, the Kelpie, and Yallery Brown , the supporting cast has little dialogue, but is ever-present and in constant motion. The youngest cast members, Hazel Geremia and Josie Geremia, add a distinctively creepy element appearing as faceless Dead Children singing a grim nursery rhyme (“my mother she killed me and put me in pies, my father he ate me and said I was nice…”). The uncanny theme of the swapped child, a changeling, runs throughout the show, connecting the two young mothers to the dark spirit world that pursues them.
Design elements are central to Cady’s and Macamaux’s directorial vision. Costumer Witt Tarantino’s eerie and outlandish design stands out, alongside masks and giant puppets by Charlie Santos, Anne Cashman, and Tim Cashman. The production includes musical underscoring from Tyler Brown and Brian Kozak on piano and guitar which bleeds into and interacts with the language and movement around the patio. CTC’s production delights in blurring the boundaries between these individual elements.
There is little doubt that “The Skriker” is a production that will challenge the spectator’s expectations. The play can feel not only strange, but obscure and impenetrable, somewhere between “nightmares and day dreams,” as Macamaux writes in their Directors’ Notes. What is straightforward on the surface — truth, friendship, violence, good and evil, time and space, and even children’s fairy tales — can be distorted. Over the course of an evening at CTC’s compelling and original production of “The Skriker,” the individual spectator might also emerge changed, in a different state than when they entered — and isn’t openness to this kind of magic just what the season demands?