What if your reality turned inside out?


WILLIAMSTOWN - In British playwright Caryl Churchill's "The Skriker," a shape-shifting supernatural creature from English legends becomes involved in the lives of two women, and ends up warping time, reality and personal lives in a story with political cross sections to modern environmental concerns.

Beginning Thursday night, director Kameron Steele brings Churchill's mystical, prescient work to the '62 Center at Williams College for a two-weekend run through Nov. 19.

To Steele, the play offers layer upon layer for audiences to examine as the action unfolds onstage, with the Skriker operating as a metaphor for the planet Earth - a being that is both dependent on human beings and seeking to destroy them as well, as it attempts to steal the baby of one of the characters.

" 'The Skriker' is essentially a play about the relationship between human beings and the natural world and how that relationship has deteriorated over the course of human history," Steele said in an interview at Williams, "and how now we're at a tipping point where nature will basically start to take its revenge and change the course of human history, the course of the species. The relationship has changed from one of mysticism and mutual respect to one of antagonism."

"The Skriker" pulls from the English folkloric tradition of anthropomorphizing nature, in which spirits were created to correspond with nature in order to explain natural phenomenon, but it also takes from current events as well, mixing the two circumstances for a fantasy with terrifyingly real implications.

"This human story was written a lot in response to a real phenomenon in England in the '90s," said Steele. "Margaret Thatcher changed the welfare policy so pregnant teenage mothers did not receive the benefits that they had been receiving for quite some time. Suddenly you had pregnant mothers unable to support their children and living on the street, homeless shelters being filled with these sorts of people, and the instances of several mothers killing their children."

Another way Churchill mixes mythology with concerns of the real world is with the inclusion of schizophrenia, which one of the characters is stricken with, and its relationship in the play with changelings. A changeling is a baby that has been taken by spirits and replaced with one of their own, and the character Josie is convinced that her baby is a changeling. This results in the baby's murder, and the play opens after these events, with Josie's schizophrenic fantasies landing her in a mental hospital.

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Much of the action in the play involves Josie's best friend, Lily, who is going to have a baby, but is offered a chance to save Josie, though being a mortal, she doesn't understand the full implications of her decision and ends up with her own form of sacrifice at the hands of the Skriker. Steele says that this female friendship is at the core of the play, despite many of the fantastic scenarios it takes place in.

"What happens doing the course of the play is that more and more, the spirit world and the human reality are equals," he said. "As the play moves forward the spirit world slowly dominates and takes over the way we look at time and space in the human world, the way we look at everything. Suddenly a second takes 100 years and 100 years takes a second. They're able to change the way the protagonists perceive time, so as a director you have to create a plasticity in the way the audience is perceiving time, as well."

It's this challenge to keep one foot firmly in the human story of friendship that Steele has kept dominant in his production. He recognizes that he could spend a majority of his time crafting monsters and strange environments, but he thinks that tactic risks losing the human story that drives the play.

His attempt to combat this has brought about certain solutions in staging. Steele sees the play as being very much about the womb and the planet, and people's attempts to dominate those spaces. He has therefor created in '62 Center's CenterStage a theater in the round with a turnable stage that stands in for both. He will also make use of the balconies in the theater as creating an outside space for action, placing the audience in the middle and, like the characters in the play, having to deal with constantly shifting perspectives.

"First it's the organization of space and then working with actors who were cast," said Steele, "because they had the kind of training and physical ability that made them able to transform and change the nature of the space with their bodies. I try to depend on the actors and their physicality to create the reality of the space, as opposed to moving sets and props and costumes. It starts with the actor."

Steele says that the atmosphere is rounded out by a live sound score produced through Ableton Live, complimenting 56 roles, all with different costumes, which hints at the complexity of what is being staged.

"We're trying to honor the menagerie that Caryl Churchill has proposed, but we don't quite present every single one of those mythical characters," Steele said. "We make an attempt, but doing that in as streamlined a way as possible. That's the challenge, keeping it in focus even though there is all of this very chaotic activity going on constantly. There are at least three or four narratives going on at any one given time."

Reach correspondent John Seven at mister.j.seven@gmail.com


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