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I suspect it’s possible to relish Caryl Churchill’s nightmarish fairy tale The Skriker even if you don’t find its central themes—humankind’s responsibility for a dying ecosystem and modern estrangement from a world of the spirit—particularly engaging.
Actually, I’m being coy.
I, myself, relished The Skriker without realizing (until I was at home reading the program—idiot that I am) that I’d been watching an environmental dystopia. Yes, I heard the lines about ecological calamities and social decay. But in the theater, I was captivated enough by the evening’s imagery—the staging’s conjuring of blanket-headed centaurs and frog-vomiting humans, not to mention the script’s astonishing verbal riffs—that I have to confess I barely considered context. Let a man with no face carry a bucket on stage as a mother contemplates handing her baby to a gremlin, and my brain simply rebels at the processing of words.
Especially words as densely layered as the ones in The Skriker. Churchill’s linguistic flights are so fanciful as she turns titles, lyrics, and all manner of familiar phrases back on themselves that, frankly, even reading the script after the fact, I’m not sure what much of it means. That it is intoxicating in performance, though, is undeniable.
“Moby dictated the outcome into the garden maudlin” is a fairly representative line from the stream-of-consciousness rants Churchill provides for her title character, an angry, dyspeptic, extremely manipulative fairy played by Nanna Ingvarsson. Played, let’s note, with remarkable clarity, considering how hard it must be to commit to memory (let alone inflect with feeling) such lines as “All good men come to the AIDS party” and “Oh dear, what can the Matterhorn.”
Ingvarsson spews long paragraphs of this sort of thing—quasi-Joycean verbiage, much of it referencing urban rot and social ills—as Bogles and Kelpie, Spriggans, Thrumpins, and the aptly named Rawheadandbloodybones cavort nearby. These spirits, hailing from the dawn of time, remain mostly nonverbal, but if the Skriker’s rants are any indication, they’re all annoyed with the human-come-latelys who have recently begun mucking up their planet.
The shape-shifting Skriker—appearing one minute as a malicious child, the next as a bag lady, the next as a barfly—has decided to make at least a couple of these mortals aware that they’re sharing the world with magical creatures. She’s fixed upon tough customer Josie (Katie Atkinson), hospitalized after killing her baby, and her trusting, pregnant friend Lily (Lindsay Haynes), aiming to seduce them by granting wishes. Remembering childhood stories, both young women suspect that bargains struck with sprites are unlikely to turn out satisfyingly, but that doesn’t keep them from tripping down rabbit holes, worm holes, and a variety of holes in logic.
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If The Skriker places heady demands on an acting company, Kathleen Akerley’s staging for Forum Theatre & Dance, a two-year-old troupe specializing in multigenre work, manages to be admirably resourceful on what is clearly a minimal budget. Michael Dove’s setting amounts to little more than urban walls with occasional accessorizing—stretched spandex, say, to create an undulating landscape. Costumer Pei Lei’s thrift-shop creatures are similarly inventive, with appendages sprouting at odd angles, second heads chattering midtorso, and so forth.
Arguably, a degree of genuine spectacle might better serve the script’s environmental finger-pointing, but then, as I noted at the outset, it’s possible to miss much of Churchill’s message and still find the delivery pretty enchanting.
Ingénues, leading men, and quickstepping chorus lines are all very useful, but pity the poor musical comedy that doesn’t keep a J. Fred Shiffman in reserve for its second act. After bouncy opening numbers have done their expositional work, and lovers have trilled a romantic ballad or two, there’s generally a lot of time to fill before the final curtain. True love can’t be rushed, but complications often aren’t all that complicated in light-hearted genre entertainments, so keeping things crackling past intermission can be tricky.
In the decades since he first appeared on D.C. stages with a cabaret act called Red Shoes Walkin’, Shiffman has almost always provided plenty of crackle. There’s something about that long nose he’s forever looking down, and the sway of his slender shoulders when he’s striding away in triumph, and the adenoidal obsequiousness he affects when he simply must possess something he doesn’t have, that marks him as a stage creature of more than passing interest. Even when his characters keep one foot in the real world—his oily closeted Nazi in Cabaret, say, or his confused hero in Falsettoland—there’s a whiff of greasepaint about them. And set him loose to do comic embroidering that’s less tethered to character than to situation, and he becomes a clown of the sort who once inhabited vaudeville.
It’s that clowning Shiffman that Kyle Donnelly’s staging of She Loves Me harnesses to get its second act off to a roaring start. The plot—borrowed from Miklós Lászlós Parfumerie, turned by Hollywood into The Shop Around the Corner—has by that time reached the point where feuding perfume-shop clerks Georg and Amalia must go on a blind date and discover that they’ve been writing lonely hearts letters not to strangers but to each other. Shiffman plays the supercilious, long-suffering head waiter at the restaurant they’ve chosen for their rendezvous; he has just one song—a tango about how his establishment struggles to preserve “A Romantic Atmosphere”—and as somersaulting waiters and clattering dishes deny his every word, he employs an array of withering glances, trembling rages, and stealth-bomb pauses to uproarious effect. Nor does all this comically inflated hauteur in any way diminish his ability to seem delicacy itself a few moments later while offering comfort to a lonely heart whose date hasn’t showed up.
I don’t mean to suggest, incidentally, that Shiffman is the evening’s only attraction. Brynn O’Malley’s ice-cream-loving Amalia and Kevin Kraft’s forthright Georg are as attractive and as expressively full-voiced as anyone might wish of a leading lady and her lad. Clifton Guterman’s fresh-faced delivery boy, Jim Corti’s expansively timid clerk, Nancy Lemenager’s easily seduced cashier, Sebastian La Cause’s full-of-himself ladies’ man, and Hal Robinson’s blustery shop owner round out the staff at Maraczek’s Parfumerie entirely pleasantly. And designer Kate Edmunds has created a jewel-box of a shop for them to inhabit, with glittering glass display cases that pop up as needed from a floor painted to resemble a gigantic Victorian postcard emblazoned with a stage-filling rose bouquet.
All of which serves a show that’s far longer on charm than on musical pizazz. Some 44 years after it opened on Broadway, She Loves Me remains tuneful, amusing, and determinedly mild—a pleasant little bonbon crafted by composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick between their Pulitzer-winning Fiorello! and their megahit Fiddler on the Roof. You could call She Loves Me the best-crafted musical of a year in which the competition wasn’t tough (also-rans in 1963 included Tovarich, Hot Spot, Here’s Love, and The Girl Who Came to Supper).
Still, if the show will never be a powerhouse (it opens with a song about the weather and concludes with a rousing number about Christmas shopping), it can be gussied up nicely, and Arena’s staging—from Nancy Schertler’s shimmering lighting effects to the sounds coaxed from an out-of-sight pit band by conductor William Foster McDaniel—is in all respects a handsome one. Call it a fine holiday attraction for mom and dad and Aunt Tillie, and possibly for you, too, if you’re fond of waltzes, delicacy, and good taste.CP