SCARED OF DEMONS
at Cafe Voltaire
Gillarlaine Theatre Company
at Cafe Voltaire
Seeing Babaganouj Theatre's Scared of Demons and Gillarlaine Theatre Company's Dark Ride back-to-back is an education in theatrical economy. Both plays take their audiences on imaginative journeys: time is suspended, and fantasy and reality become indistinguishable. In a space as technically primitive as Cafe Voltaire's basement, it's difficult to create this kind of magic, yet looking at these two productions makes it clear that the simpler the choices, the better the play will transcend its environment.
The simple, effective Scared of Demons, an hour-long monologue written by Michael Steffens-Moran and performed by Kimmy Berg, might be seen as an episode from a contemporary volume of Lives of the Saints. A young girl, alternately 9 and 12 years old, wrestles with demons she believes intend to possess her. Paradoxically, the more fantastic the demon, the more real she perceives the threat to be. A stranger who invites her into his car is a mere annoyance next to the unseen force that threatens to transform this naive girl into a sexually depraved animal.
Scared of Demons might be viewed as an exploration of our culture's bias against sex, a bias so deeply internalized by this little girl, as well as by her fundamentalist family and teachers, that she perceives the natural desire to touch herself and give herself pleasure as a satanic force. In her mind, a demon repeatedly tries to force a crucifix between her legs.
But Steffens-Moran's language defies such a neat metaphorical interpretation. The world he creates is one of extremes and absolutes. The only advice the little girl gets, from a variety of sources, is to trust Jesus. But this is the same Jesus that demons tell her wants to violate her. The playwright unrelentingly portrays a conflict that occurs, not in the world of psychology, but in the world of good and evil.
The extremism of the script makes it fascinating and, to a nonreligious viewer like myself, impenetrable. Any attempt to psychologize the play seems ill-fated. Most of us cannot see ourselves in this character. We do not, after all, live in a world of demons. Instead we witness her struggle and perhaps examine our own understanding of good and evil. Scared of Demons offers its audience no easy way out. Steffens-Moran has taken a world normally associated with a lunatic fringe and uncovered the painful, ancient human struggle at its core.
To bring this demanding script to life, Berg and director Meghan Schumacher have reduced Scared of Demons to its essentials. Berg delivers her text in as straightforward a manner as possible, without any props and with hardly a gesture. Yet her focus is so intense, her technique so refined, and her understanding of the script so thorough that she fills the stage with all the images she needs.
Berg is at once methodical and mercurial. After deftly creating a moment and filling it with nuance, she instantly and imperceptibly slips out of it with the slightest turn of her head or raising of an eyebrow. By keeping her performance simple, Berg is able to cross the ordinary boundaries of time and space effortlessly. In essence, nothing weighs her down. At the same time she carries her audience along in first-class comfort.
Director Mark A. Fossen and his ten-person cast take a very different approach to Len Jenkin's Dark Ride, with much less success. Of course, Jenkin's play is a more complicated and challenging work than Scared of Demons. Dark Ride is exactly that: a harrowing journey through a playwright's bewilderingly surreal imagination. Jenkin's world is one of endless synchronicity, in which significant elements appear in unrelated worlds and characters come together under the most unlikely of circumstances.
In the words of one of the characters, Mrs. Lammle (Amy Elizabeth Flaherty), this is "the world of coincidence." For example, the Translator (Brett Radford) opens the show by explaining that the fragment of ancient Chinese text he's trying to decipher seems to describe a woman reading a popular novel. Suddenly Margo (Heather Donaldson) appears, reading the very book described. When she reads about a thief traveling along a highway, the Thief (John R. Pierson) appears, describing himself in Margo's exact words. The play continues in like manner until all the characters' lives have become magically intertwined. Jenkin's text is intentionally mysterious, with hardly any stage directions; what gives the play shape is the evolution of coincidental images. Yet these images remain opaque.
On paper Jenkin's play simply flies, as his intricate network of "chance" occurrences grows and grows. Gillarlaine attempts to literalize--and in many cases, overliteralizes--as much of the text as possible. While such a tack is understandable, the amount of material that Jenkin supplies makes this approach ultimately unmanageable. The production ends up cluttered, so mired in details that the larger patterns of the play never come into focus.
In addition many choices, though perhaps entertaining or theatrical in themselves, work against the meaning of the play. In one scene Mr. Zendavesta (Tom Hickey) grills the Translator about information in the Chinese text: Zendavesta believes that it contains directions to the hole that leads out of the universe, a hole he's devoted his life to finding. But instead of focusing on the Translator as the long-awaited directions might finally be revealed, Zendavesta dashes about the room erratically, at one point even leaving it altogether and going upstairs to get a cup of coffee. These antics underscore Zendavesta's possible insanity, but they compromise the dynamics of the scene. And the very words Zendavesta speaks call his sanity into question.
Fossen needs to find an appropriate form to contain the wildly disparate elements in Jenkin's play. This is no easy trick, and it's doubly complicated by Jenkin's wholly unsatisfying ending. But without some unifying sensibility or consistent conventional language it's impossible to keep this play--and the audience--on track. Currently Dark Ride feels more like a series of scene studies than a play.