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'The Skriker': A jabberwocky thriller

Where do the obsessions of the powerful and the longings of the powerless intersect? In Janice Findley's spot-on interpretation of Caryl Churchill's creepy surrealist thriller.
'The Skriker's Underworld Feast. From left to right: Cathy Sutherland, Sruti Desai, Mariel Neto, Mary Ewald & Aaron Swartzman

'The Skriker's Underworld Feast. From left to right: Cathy Sutherland, Sruti Desai, Mariel Neto, Mary Ewald & Aaron Swartzman Julia Salamonik

Jessica Martin (lower right) with Sruti Desai & Aaron Swartzman in 'The Skriker'

Jessica Martin (lower right) with Sruti Desai & Aaron Swartzman in 'The Skriker' Paul Joseph Brown

For those of you wishing for a hobgoblin of a scary play this Halloween season, Janice Findley’s inspired production of The Skriker by acclaimed British playwright Caryl Churchill is just the thing. Findley and her company of actors and dancers take this disturbing play and create a theatrical dreamscape that leaves audience members dislocated in time and space, yet exhilarated and transported by the Joycean jabberwocky language.

Audience alert: this is a difficult play; one that swallows you whole and demands your entire attention for nearly two and a half hours with constantly shifting scenes of powerful theatrical imagery. Churchill does not provide us with a linear context, but disrupts on multiple levels, through associative language, music, movement and mythic images.  

The Skriker is a dystopian thriller reminiscent of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream but without the orderly and happy resolution of action. Churchill draws on ancient English and Irish folk and fairy tales to tap into the darker passages of the unconscious, blending fantasy and political reality. She has defined the themes of her work as being about the obsessions of the powerful and the longings of the powerless.

Considered by many to be the greatest female dramatist of the last 100 years, Churchill conjures up a mesmerizing world in which we meet the Skriker, a shape-shifting, wish-granting faerie abroad in modern London, making dark mischief in her pursuit of two young female friends, wily Josie (Mariel Neto) and a credulous Lily (Jessica Martin).

The incomparable Mary Ewald dazzles us from the first moment she appears in the opening act as the Skriker, a name itself that descends from a Lancashire term for a shrieker, a screamer. She floods us with an eight-minute monologue in language that suggests other worlds, and other ways of being. “Whatever you do don’t open to do don’t open the door.” Immediately the audience is forewarned — but of what, we are not certain. It’s as if we circle a cauldron with Ewald, while she recites a terrifying mutation of the English language, a skittering between sense and nonsense, rhymes, jokes, puns, obscenities and a chaos of associations.  

It’s rare that I’ve experienced so visceral a physical response to a piece of contemporary theater. The combination of language, movement, and sound left me breathless, as if delivered straight to the solar plexus. This theater experience stuns because of the remarkable Seattle theatrical, dance and musical talent Findley assembled in creating her production team. 

Few “all out” productions of The Skriker exist precisely because so many elements must be developed anew. In addition to the play’s three speaking characters, Churchill wrote the play with tersely described movement characters, which means that choreographed movement and music must be newly written with each new production.

Seattle dance icon Pat Graney choreographed the play. Her deep knowledge of Celtic folklore and fairy tales is revealed in the poetic movements of twenty characters, played by six different actors and dancers, moving silently about the stage during the performance.  

Churchill populates the landscape with beings from English folklore: the Kelpie, Spriggan, Rawheadandbloodybones, Nellie Longarms, Johnny Squarefoot, Bogle and Yallery Brown. How can the audience not enter another realm? “The Passerby,” performed continuously by Amelia Reeber, can’t stop dancing until everyone and everything is played out. She becomes the only human survivor of the play.

The continual costume changes, designed by Eve Cohen, astounded one after the other. Perhaps the most vividly beautiful was the banquet scene set in the Underworld.

Seattle percussionist Paul Hansen’s original compositions and his sound design wove the evening together seamlessly, uniting the upper and lower worlds of myth and reality.

Janice Findley is a local magician, obviously a gift to our city. She has drawn together an extraordinary company of Seattle artists and performers to create a work that is equal parts stunning theater, evocative dance and jaw-dropping visual art. Her production is an ambitious undertaking, giving us theater as theater should be: difficult, mysterious, provocative, terrifying.


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