There is Big Cheap Theater and then there is simply cheap theatre. City Garage's current offering feels more like the latter, and that's a shame, because this company is capable of better. It's also a shame because it might seem, watching this production, that it's not possible to do a demanding play such as this cheaply, and that is not the case. On the contrary, Caryl Churchill's meditation on the fatal disconnect between the modern world and the more natural (and supernatural) past may allow a producer the opportunity for bells and whistles galore in terms of elaborate design elements, but the only thing it demands is close attention to the three central characters—two young Englishwomen and the shapeshifter that won't leave them alone. This is a play filled with fairies and goblins, but at its core must be the relationship between the women and the outsider, in order to carry the larger message. Director Frederique Michel has not successfully built this framework, and therefore, instead of forgiving all else, our eyes are drawn to the other shortcomings of this production—sloppy accents, mediocre design, uninspired use of sound. With a stronger center, an audience would be more forgiving. As it is, this production comes off as, well, cheap.
This is not to say that it's a complete failure by any means. Most impressive among this show's accomplishments is that director Michel has wrested the meaning out of much of Churchill's Byzantine text. The needy shapeshifter who haunts our unlikely heroines speaks in riddles, but Michel has obviously taken the time to clarify with actress Ilana Gustafson how to deliver these tricky passages so the meaning is apparent. Here is an example of how tough this text is: "So the Skriker sought fame and fortune telling, celebrity knockout drops, TV stardomination, chat showdown and market farces, see if I carefree, and completely forgetmenot Lily and Josie. Lovely and juicy, silly and cozy, lived in peaces and quite, Jerky still mad as a hitter and Lively soon gave happy birth to a baby a booby a babbly byebye booboo boohoo hoooooo," the creature says at one point. Laudably, Gustafson makes sense of this in performance. The next step, of course, is the emotional intention behind these words. She and Michel have not quite gotten there yet.
That Michel and production designer Charles A. Duncombe Jr. chose to do this play—the SoCal premiere—is impressive as well, though not surprising. City Garage always seems to choose the most challenging, and in this critic's opinion some of the most important, modern plays (Genet, Muller, Brecht), but often their reach exceeds their grasp. In this case, Gustafson, Cynthia Mance as the "good" Lily, and Jody Moschetti as the "bad" Josie are not up to the task, and most of the very specific supernatural creatures that inhabit the play, from Annie Greenteeth to Johnny Squarefoot—which the producers actually took the time to research—are disappointingly realized by actors in black robes, Halloween masks, and sooty makeup.
If you're not familiar with this modern Gothic treat (really a subtly disguised indictment of our technologically obsessed society) from the prolific Churchill, it's worth a read, and if you keep your expectations low, even a trip to City Garage. But we expect more from this troupe, and so will fans of this dark, delightful play.
"The Skriker," presented by and at City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St., Santa Monica. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 5:30 p.m. Mar. 9-Apr. 15. $10-20. (310) 319-9939.