I had a professor in college who loved the term “gesamtkunswerk.” It’s a big German word that means “comprehensive work of art,” and it’s something all art is supposed to strive for — sort of the ideal piece of creativity. Creating it is one thing, but in some ways, you could argue that it would be even better to experience it, because then you get the end result without the tremendous amount of work that would go into something like that.
Forgive my meandering introduction, but it’s all to say –
If you want to have a really fancy cathartic artistic experience at the theater, I suggest you head down to The Contemporary Theater Company where Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker is currently proving that gesamtkunswerks pop up in the most unlikely of places.
That’s not to say that the CTC isn’t capable of producing stellar work. It’s just that going into this particular production, it would seem difficult to know what to expect.
Churchill is one the great dramatists of the last century. Her work ranges from the strange to the outright fantastical. In fact, one of the gems in CTC’s legacy is its production of Churchill’s Cloud Nine, directed by Ryan Hartigan five years ago. She’s a fantastic option for those who want to raid the modern masterpiece canon without resorting to doing a Mamet revival, and she’s infinitely more interesting.
Now the CTC has returned to Churchill, and in a form that should send up a flare to every theater-lover in the state. Because what’s happening at CTC is nothing short of miraculous.
The Skriker isn’t easy to describe. It deals with two young mothers, Lily and Josie, and the titular character, a mutating spirit who sometimes speaks in stream-of-consciousness ominous poetry, particularly in the epic opening monologue.
Christine Cauchon turns in a tour de force performance as The Skriker. It’s a role of daunting magnitude, and with clear direction, Cauchon is able to seduce the audience while not becoming self-indulgent. The danger of this sort of role would be the opportunity it presents for flash and adjectives. One could play it sexy or creepy or any number of ways, but Cauchon focuses on the dual objective of inserting herself into the lives of Josie, a woman who’s taken the life of her child, and Lily, who’s pregnant with her own child.
The Skriker appears throughout the women’s lives in various forms, and Churchill uses this mystical character as she weaves a very harrowing human story about the challenges of being left without choice, without agency, and without hope. Cauchon moves throughout each character with only the slightest of changes to her physicality and vocal choices, thereby not distracting us with “performance.” She’s one of the most consistent actresses in the area when it comes to the level of commitment she brings to the parts she plays, but here, she’s able to show off every inch of her ability, and what she does with the opening monologue is something akin to watching an opera singer nail an aria. You’ll be talking about it for months.
Lily and Josie are played by Emily Rodriguez and Maggie Papa, respectively, and their communion with each other is truly astonishing. Emily creates a portrait of a strong woman who slowly comes unmoored over the course of the play as she finds herself in the throes of the Skriker’s ambitions. Her unraveling is heartbreaking to watch. There’s something classical about her approach to the performance — like something beyond theater that evokes the darkest of fairy tales.
Maggie Papa’s Josie has a very different relationship with the Skriker. Hers is a bit more of a dance, where Josie is trying to somehow navigate this malevolent energy. There’s a truly perfect moment when Papa is standing over a fire, watching it be abruptly extinguished, and then stepping through the smoke. She presents a Josie that is strong but broken, and the contrast between her and Lily is the true backbone of the play. Through these two women, you see that the Skriker isn’t about the character of the Skriker, but what the Skriker brings about in others. It’s the evil you can’t escape, because it’s both external and in your own mind.
Now, in case you stopped reading when I mentioned fire, don’t worry, directors Maggie Cady and Ashley Macamaux were smart enough to realize that a story of this scope would have a very difficult time being realized inside a theater. That meant turning CTC’s outdoor patio space into a beautiful and nightmarish landscape throughout which the play could unfold. CTC primarily uses the patio for their summer Shakespeare productions, but last year, they put on a lovely production of Florian Zeller’s The Father, and, similar to that production, they’ve used the sights and sounds of an evening in Wakefield to help create a shifting tableau of reality and fantasy.
Cady’s lighting design, the absolutely astounding puppet and mask design by Charlie Santos, Anne and Tim Cashman, and the wild costuming by Witt Tarantino, turn Churchill’s British sensibilities into something resembling an Appalachian vaudeville dumbshow. It was a smart choice to lean into that aesthetic for this particular production, because it makes a 25-year-old play feel suspended from time and place.
You would have never convinced me that any Churchill, let alone this one, would work as an outdoor production, and yet now I can’t imagine it any other way. The sounds of crickets, people shouting in the distance, sirens…these are all things that typically distract when you’re watching theater under the stars, but here, they all become the sound design for a play that’s transforming reality in front of your eyes. When mixed with the underscoring from Tyler Brown, it’s truly mesmerizing.
Everywhere you look, there’s something that’s not quite right. You wonder what belongs and what doesn’t. You worry about who might be behind you or right next to you. You feel somewhat possessed — which is exactly the point.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the dedicated ensemble that works harder than any I’ve seen in quite some time. In addition to Brown on guitar and piano, there’s Kelly Robertson dancing for the duration of the 90-minute show, Sam Avigdor, Maddie England, Dean Hernandez, Ezra Jordan, Hazel and Josie Geremia (who scared the daylights out of me), Brian Kozak, Jess LeClair, Daria-Lyric Montaquila, Tina Moore, Carson Pavao, Kaitlyn Sweeny, and Kathy Tivin.
The play is something like a festival. A Ray Bradbury carnival. Churchill by way of Peter Brook. Marat/Sade meets Beckett. It’s a pagan introduction to autumn, and most likely, it’ll be the scariest thing you’ll see between now and Halloween.
Cady and Macamaux have proven themselves to be a formidable team with this production, and even though theater season has just begun, I simply can’t imagine any other show offering anything as frightening and unforgettable as this one. Theater at its best is an event, and CTC has a real event on their hands. I can’t wait to see with this pair of directors does next — whether it be together or individually.
Bravo to the CTC for tackling a work of this magnitude and for demonstrating that challenging plays are not only capable of attracting audiences, but that audiences are yearning to see them.
That’s my way of saying you should get your ticket now. There wasn’t a seat to be found the night I went, and for good reason.
Gesamtkunswerks don’t come along every day, you know.
The Contemporary Theater Company presents The Skriker by Caryl Churchill through Oct 4. 327 Main St, Wakefield. For tickets and more information, call 401-218-0282, email: email@example.com or visit contemporarytheatercompany.com.