Red Tape’s “The Skriker”

Playing at Red Tape Theater, 621 W. Belmont through OCTOBER 20th

According to the dictionary, the word “skrike” means to cry or shriek. To me, the sound of the word repeated over and over is reminiscent of the pulsing high-pitched “skree skree skree” that occur in horror movies when a person appears from the shadows holding a knife in midair. Usually it’s a very disturbed person, sometimes a man wearing a dress.

And so the word seems well suited for The Skriker, a creature, a dark fairy, which is also the title of Caryl Churchill’s 1994 play. The Skriker even when it premiered in London, was met with bewilderment and negativity. In a New Yorker review that same year, Sheridan Morley went so far as to claim that, “had Caryl Churchill not been the author of Top Girls or Cloud Nine, [The Skriker] would, I suspect, not have made it much further than a studio-workshop improvisation for advanced students of drama and/or psychiatry.” The reviewer also, in an unmistakably derisive tone, adds, “clearly, it’s a performance piece rather than a play.”

So that’s the risk Director Eric Hoff and Red Tape Theater took on when they decided to adapt THE SKRIKER, to fit it into their unusual theater space; a gym in St. Peters Episcopal Church (621 W. Belmont in Lakeview). Like the London performance, the Chicago rendition has been the recipient of rather negative reviews that articulate confusion, frustration, dizziness, and exhaustion. Exhaustion? Why exhaustion? you might be thinking. The whole play is performed in a “promenade style” which means you stand and follow the action as it moves around you and as walls open, flooding the scene and the players through ever changing spaces. The actors approach you, look at you while babbling, and it is hard not to blink or look at your shoes. It is disarming.

Standing in the midst of scenes and sidestepping creatures and characters as they brush past is thrilling. In Hoff’s rendition of Churchill’s world, here is no simple line between stage and audience just as there is no border between sanity and insanity in many people’s minds, which is what I think this play is primarily about. Particularly the kind that is hysteria and lives like a black box in women. The Skriker, played by Sadie Rogers, pries this box open and the contents gush out in her opening monologue. The language is a mix between poetry and the rantings of a homeless woman on the street, maybe talking on an imaginary phone.

She does not acknowledgment the line between what’s appropriate in society and what’s not. She swears, stutters, repeats herself, approaches the audience, peppers her speech with sexual words and gestures. It’s terrifying because her next move cannot be predicted the way normal people’s behavior can be predicted. It’s beautiful because she rhymes, and the words froth forth in spectacular, inventive, provocative lines. It’s also terrifying because The Skriker is insane and yet what she is saying makes sense.

I suppose the play had some weak spots. It was a bit lengthy near the end and the feast in the underworld was not haunting to me because it seemed to try too hard be. Someone was screaming uselessly and it annoyed me. I stopped following the plot after a little while. But these things did not sour my experience of the Skriker’s language or the scene where Lily wishes Josie back to before she made a wish. There is a pause and Josie blinks and doesn’t remember what has happened and it is the creepiest thing ever. It is not “normal” theater, though I don’t really know much about theater. I’m a poet, and that’s why I’m writing about this play, ahem, “performance piece.” Because it struck me, and has lingered with me.

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