IN THE FLESH
Organic Theater Company
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub; / For in that sleep of death what dreams may come. --from Shakespeare's Hamlet
A rich vision and superb stagecraft have transformed the cramped confines of the Organic Theater's second-floor Greenhouse space into the seemingly limitless, definitely macabre dream world of Clive Barker. The British horror writer's story "In the Flesh," adapted by Chicago actors Charley Sherman and Steve Pickering, makes for a chilling meditation on perception and reality, life and the afterlife in this well-played, marvelously designed production, staged by Sherman in a remarkable directorial debut.
Set in north London's Pentonville Prison, said to be the resting ground of such notorious executed killers as Dr. Crippen, In the Flesh concerns the consciousness-altering relationship between two inmates. Cleveland Smith is a seedy career con, a small-time dope dealer wrapped in an "armor of indifference" against whatever pain or pleasure the world might visit on him. A youthful first-time offender, Billy Tait, is assigned to Smith's cell so that Smith can protect the kid from prison rapists. Though Billy seems a listless drifter, he's soon revealed to be a man with a mission: enlisting Smith, he sets about to find the grave of his grandfather, Edgar Tait, a religious fanatic who slaughtered all his family with the accidental exception of Billy's mother.
Crafty, visionary, seizure-prone, and strangely brooding, Billy begins to commune with the spirit of his evil ancestor in secret ceremonies that parallel not only Christian prayer but Christ's communion with God before his crucifixion; their pact is sealed when the boy employs mystical means to murder two men who raped him in the shower. Meanwhile Smith begins to have dreams--frightening visits to an otherworldly city inhabited by monsters and murderers. They may not be imaginary, however, but supernatural--mental excursions that are not mere dreams but real out-of-body journeys.
From these premises In the Flesh spins a morbid, often gripping exploration of interlocking themes: sin and redemption, faith and friendship, death and resurrection. Sherman and Pickering's adaptation, careful and cunning in the way it selects, discards, and restructures elements of its source, underscores the tale's religious motifs. In fact the play improves on the story by reassigning the author's impersonal third-person narration to a character known as the Bishop, a historian of incarceration whose proclivity for collecting odd information makes him the perfect teller of this tale. It's the Bishop who informs us that Pentonville's ground has special properties--bodies buried there don't rot--preparing us from the start for In the Flesh's judgment-day theme.
Ultimately the play is weakened by the limitations of its genre, however. For all its claims to metaphysical allegory, In the Flesh is less profound than it aspires to be, and sometimes it's downright hokey: a ritual celebration of violence by a congregation of killers is straight out of a 1960s Roger Corman movie, as is Jamie Eldredge's Vincent Price-like characterization of Billy's murderous grandpa.
But even at its least convincing the show is always dark, scary fun; and much of it is genuinely compelling thanks to the cleverness and commitment with which it's produced and played. Jeff Atkins is a marvel as Billy: his gaunt, feral face and haunted, obsessive eyes (emphasized by Sandy Morris's makeup--in a show like this cosmetics make a difference) convey a thoroughly Dickensian character, eerie and vulnerable. He's well matched by Maurice Chasse, who sensitively sketches Smith's transformation from hardened con to concerned friend to terrified deathbed Christian convert. Ray Wild's Bishop is a sedentary, seductive storyteller, and the large supporting ensemble is effectively athletic in various roles as prisoners and monsters.
Most important is the production's hypnotic design, which fluidly shifts between the claustrophobic prison interior and the lunar landscape of Smith's dreams. Against the small room's brick back wall set designers Pickering and Greg Ballmann have placed a deceptively bare-looking black stage dotted with an ingenious network of secret entrances; sometimes a white silk carpet turns the black floor into a sinister desert of shifting sand.
On this set Sherman and choreographer Julia Neary have arranged some haunting theatrical tableaux: Billy hunched on his bed under the shadow of his prison bars as men scream and moan in nearby cells; the prisoners' rigidly martial exercises, performed under a series of special lights to the rhythmic, shatteringly loud clangs of police clubs against metal poles; Billy's sexual scourging by his two soon-to-be-toast rapists, lit and staged with the morbid homoeroticism of a Caravaggio painting. Adding to the spooky effects are Michael Bodeen's threatening, environment-filling electronic sound track and Stephanie Ferrell's carefully detailed costumes, ranging from blue prison wear (Smith's is faded and rumpled, while newcomer Billy's is dark and crisp) to the abstract white shapes of the ghouls that prowl the deathly dream city of Smith's subconscious and Barker's imagination.
A dreamlike effect is also achieved in Parlando, performed by the Doorika ensemble in its out-of-the-way loft west of the Loop; but here the dream is comic, illogical, and generally incomprehensible. Though judging from its stage pictures the production follows a fairly simple plot line--about a virginal farm girl who makes her way to the big city and winds up dancing in a sleazy nightclub--the cast-created dialogue is a confounding stream of non sequiturs, camp cliches, and out-and-out nonsense. The songs, by Frank Navin, poke fun at feminine stereotypes by appropriating styles ranging from 1920s torch songs to exhibitionistic poseur pop a la Madonna, but their lyrics are so banal they defy empathy.
The result is sometimes perplexing, once in a while annoying, but as often as not quite funny thanks to the show's sheer illogicality. The production's visual and aural designs are marked by high quality and intelligence: Scott Fulmer created the sculptural set, a spiral of wooden slats leading up to a TV screen, and John Dooley is credited for the sound track, a dense collage of sound effects and musical fragments from such sources as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and Guys and Dolls. Similarly well crafted are the sharply focused emotional moments created by actresses Tamara Wasserman (as would-be dancer Dot Dorothea), Marianne Potje, Debbie Shirley, and Lisa Perry. Erika Yeomans's direction is notable for its crisp, clean stage pictures. Even when you don't know what the people onstage are saying, you sense what they're feeling--as is often true in dreams. This is very original--and very strange--underground theater.