During civilization’s final descent into barbarism, says Philip Ridley’s 2005 U.K. hit “Mercury Fur,” the powerful will indulge their most insane fantasies, while the rest of us try to maintain a little dignity as we cater to them. The young Needtheater company’s stunning, superb production at the Imagined Life Theater drags us into a circle of hell while affirming the indomitability of humanity’s best instincts, even when apocalypse is now.As riots go unchecked and escaping zoo animals are set afire, a filthy, abandoned London flat — realistically appointed by Adam Rigg down to the last dust mite; asthmatics beware — sees a latter-day Artful Dodger and Oliver Twist setting up a party. Long-suffering older brother Elliot (Edward Tournier) is the outfit’s brains and muscle, hopped-up Darren (Andrew Perez) its guileless sprite. Their Fagin, entrepreneur Spinx (a sleazily feral Greg Beam), is throwing a literal bash: An investment banker (equally sleazy Kelly Van Kirk) will be paying big to torture a randomly chosen, drugged youth (Ryan Hodge) with a meat hook, a digital video record of the event as his parting souvenir. One cannot recommend “Mercury Fur” without acknowledging its unabashed brutality. More intense than “Children of Men,” play echoes the futuristic menace of “A Clockwork Orange” minus the Kubrick film’s fancy touches around the edges. For some, that which is hideous but endurable onscreen may be unbearable in person. Those with fortitude are rewarded by Ridley’s willingness to assign his characters room to ruminate and feel, as events steamroll toward their ominous conclusion. Myth speaks of a mysterious dust storm that settled over Britain along with homicidally hallucinogenic tabs delicately called “butterflies,” peddled by Elliot to a public eager (or desperate) to escape. Some allow you to live out Lee Harvey Oswald fantasies; a new strain causing instant suicide is unsurprisingly the current bestseller. Meanwhile, a parade of refugees staggers into the nightmare seeking succor. Waif-like Naz (a sweetly appealing Jason Karasev) shares an unforgettable, blood-curdling monologue about a supermarket encounter with local youths. Spinx’s companion, the blinded, giddy Duchess (a wonderful Nina Sallinen) holds court like “Endgame’s” Hamm in Carol Channing drag, while Elliot’s companion Lola (a serene, mournful Jeff Torres) brings more conscience to the party in real drag than any of the wise guys. The demanding anchor roles of fixer Elliot and butterfly-eating Darren couldn’t be in better hands. In a glance or gesture, Perez can convey both the ghastly effects of what he’s seen and his enduring faith in “bruvver” to make everything right. Tournier’s glowering, calculating presence is constantly felt even as the injured Elliot retreats to the sidelines upon Spinx’s arrival. The depth of the thesp’s concentration renders utterly convincing his stepping up, in the final moments, as the play’s unlikely but undoubted moral center. Helmer Dado, a seasoned Chicago hand like many Needtheater principals, exquisitely balances the characters’ emotional oases with the violence constantly threatening to blast up from the corridors. When it finally does, character, dialogue and physical business are masterfully orchestrated, abetted by Camelia Poespowidjojo’s flawless fight direction. Brandon Baruch’s lighting plot and Ryan Poulson’s sound effects chillingly execute the transitions through Ridley’s long day’s journey into horror. Some may express concern at a young boy’s casting amid all this squalor. Management asserts strict parental supervision and sequestration from the seamier elements, but even if they didn’t, one somehow credits them with responsible judgment. No company this sensitive to fictional malignity could possibly be guilty of it in real life.
Imagined Life Theater; 99 seats; $20 top
A Needtheater production of a play in one act by Philip Ridley. Directed by Dado.
Sets, Adam Rigg; costumes, Kat Marquet; lighting, Brandon Baruch; fight choreographer, Camelia Poespowidjojo; sound design, Ryan Poulson; stage manager, Kate Webster. Opened May 29, 2009. Reviewed June 14. Runs through June 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN.
Elliot - Edward Tournier Darren - Andrew Perez Naz - Jason Karasev Lola - Jeff Torres Party Piece - Ryan Hodge Spinx - Greg Beam The Duchess - Nina Sallinen Party Guest - Kelly Van Kirk