Jayne Atkinson is the Skriker, in a performance of mesmerizing loquaciousness. She opens the play with a dense, 20-minute monologue that seems to be a stream-of-consciousness riff, until we realize a story is unfolding — the one we are about to see — of Josie (Caroline Seymour), a young girl who murdered her 10-day-old baby, and Lily (Angie Phillips), Josie’s pregnant best friend — a working-class, none-too-bright pair with a modicum of spark: “Laverne & Shirley” meet “The X-Files.”
That monologue is delivered from a chair down front that has burst through the stage and risen well above it. Behind Atkinson, the Newman Theater is traversed by a miniature lighted city that seems to have been constructed of milk cartons. A few fleecy clouds are suspended above it, and there are troughs of dirt onstage as well, and it’s all framed by rows of corrugated steel.
TX: TX:A New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of a play in one act by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Mark Wing-Davey, with choreography by Sara Rudner. Sets and costumes, Marina Draghici; Before the Skriker makes her appearance, the theater is filled with a sound that regular Public Theater patrons will at first identify as the familiar rumblings of the subway, but which grow increasingly louder and more ominous. And while that opening monologue is under way, we become aware of a turbulent yet subtle soundscape burbling underneath, comprising drum beats, found music, dripping water, animal grunts and more, all in a strange dark symphony evoking the nether world — both literal and psychic — the play explores.
“The Skriker” is the latest collaboration between Churchill and director Mark Wing-Davey, costume and set designer Marina Draghici, and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, the team behind the brilliant “Mad Forest,” about the end of the Ceausescu regime, in 1992. (A different team staged the new play’s premiere at the Royal National Theater two years ago.) Like the earlier work, “The Skriker” is at once a major achievement and unlike anything else seen onstage this season; like “Mad Forest,””The Skriker” tours a horror-house world in ways that will have you cringing one minute and laughing out loud the next.
After that opening monologue, the play moves to a mental institution, where Lily visits Josie. There, the Skriker first interacts with them in the guise of a dowdy old woman; but it’s clear Josie knows who she is and that she is somehow responsible for the dead child. Soon it’s clear that the Skriker has an unholy interest in Lily’s unborn baby too.
Seymour — who made a sensational debut last year in Mike Leigh’s “Ecstasy,” again displays a rare combination of empathy and insight in playing Josie, a woman fated to a truly crummy existence, and Phillips’ Lily is every bit her match. As with “Mad Forest,” the ensemble work under Wing-Davey is just extraordinary. As is the stagecraft.
Churchill gives the Skriker a kind of sing-song doggerel that is quite deceptive: Try to parse it and you’re lost; let it wash over you however, and you will be drawn inexorably into a world that turns every notion of home, safety and comfort inside out.
Obviously, not everyone is going to want to take this journey, and the Public Theater run is shockingly brief. That’s a shame, because “The Skriker” is a truly original work, and the presentation here is astonishing.