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.
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.