Some people call it metaphysical dread, that deep-in-the-night, creepy kind of useless terror that can send shivers up the spines of slumbering babes and grown men alike. It's a gut-crawling anxiousness, a face-numbing fear of the everyday, ordinary world, a world full of flittery bugs, strange food, squirmy snakes, sexual desire, painful disease, freaky strangers, abandonment, death and, worst of all, our own isolation and inhumanity. All these fears and more have crawled into Stages and taken the spotlight as the season-opening The Pitchfork Disney, by Philip Ridley.
Before the house lights even go down, there's something odd happening on center stage. Thom Guthrie's impressive and spooky set starts off as a lonely street corner in London's East End. Not too strange, except for the impressively huge red-brick apartment building -- entire apartment building, that is, jutting toward the audience at a wonky angle. It is enormous indeed, but miniature, too, a sort of nightmarish, grand-scale doll house.
Open it up and find inside the cartoonish and macabre 28-year-old Haley and Presley Stray (Shannon Emerick and James Parsons), a set of weirdly symbiotic fraternal twins who have been completely infantilized by their own outrageous fears. Their ghost-white skin and dark-rimmed eyes reveal how long they've been hiding away from the world. They almost never leave the house, except to buy chocolate. They scramble up into their oversized chair, toes barely brushing the floor, for suppers of chocolate bars, tea with chocolate biscuits and squabbles over chocolate preferences. They tell each other stories: strange, violent, erotic stories that calm them down. They lock the world outside and their terrors inside with multiple dead bolts, which they enjoy clicking closed. And certainly, these two overgrown kiddos are locked away in every sense of the word, inside their home, their memories, their drug-induced hazes and their own terrifying imaginations.
Haley loves stories, demanding that her brother Presley retell his poetic version of the world after the apocalypse, a world where they are the only two humans left. She repeats her Jungian tale of getting lost in the big snake house at the zoo when she was six. She can't go out for chocolate anymore, because last time, a pack of wild dogs chased her into a church and up a crucifix until she found herself kissing the lips of Christ, a sin for which she can find no absolution. All these narratives keep their collective fears energized and palpable.
Mummy and Daddy disappeared long ago, leaving these two oddballs to fend for themselves. They live in their memories. Haley's found a way to be content with her chocolate, her sleeping pills and her grisly tales. But Presley wants more, and he is braver than his sister. In order to raise the stakes and make life more thrilling and fearful, he must be brave enough to venture out into the world. He's the one who travels to the store for chocolates, and at home he spends his time staring longingly out the darkened window to the street below. Thus, while Haley dreams, curled up in a big soft chair, sucking on a woman-sized pacifier, he does the unthinkable. After much hand-wringing and pacing about and lip-biting, Presley runs downstairs and invites the world in.
And in the world struts, taking shape in the utterly alien and ludicrous form of Cosmo Disney (Alex Kilgore), a sort of second-generation sideshow geek who'll bite, suck and eat just about any living thing that will fit in his mouth whole. He wears a red sequined jacket and shiny leather shoes and looks a whole lot like some sort of blond Devil incarnate, Vegas style. Presley takes one look and knows what he wants. He quivers with expectancy when he sits next to Cosmo; and the crude Cosmo can convince Presley to take chances, to be wild. Cosmo himself, though, has many of his own terrors, including a rabid fear of homosexuals and an aversion to touching. But while Presley wants Cosmo, Cosmo is enchanted with the sleeping beauty Haley, who's spread out across the big chair in a drug-induced sleep. Cosmo seems dangerously intent on getting what he wants.
This script is absurd, funny and hair-raisingly weird at times. Philip Ridley is a children's book author, and there is something darkly whimsical, even childlike about these characters, who look as though they never took off their Halloween makeup. When Disney admires Haley, Presley pries open his sister's sleeping eye to show off how much he looks like her. The twins pout over candy and whose turn it is, and they manipulate each other even while maintaining a fierce loyalty. But the wisdom of the play, concerning the way we synthesize fear and imagination with desire and our erotic impulse, is decidedly adult -- as is the landscape of sex, death, loss and criminality covered in the long monologues that make up the majority of the play.
And these monologues are long. Very, very long. A good deal is repeated, over and over. They are potentially grueling and difficult to sit through. But the skillful direction of Rob Bundy and the muscular energy of this small, young cast make these monologues ultimately satisfying. It's unfortunate that Haley is shortly dispatched to the Land of Nod, never to return except to sleep-whine about some bad dream. Emerick as Haley provides one of the most intelligent performances on a Houston stage this year. Parsons, too, shines as the desperately odd and gruesome Presley. And Kilgore's Cosmo practically soaks up the light and beams with a sort of raw and willful intensity.
The Pitchfork Disney is probably one of the more original ways to spend some Halloween energy this year; it certainly suits the season, with its shivery message about the strange power of fear.
The Pitchfork Disney runs through November 1 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 52-STAGES. Tickets $10-$30.
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