Carnivora: torture to watch

If this new play is "not gratuitous or exploitative," then I can't imagine what is.

The Champagne in the lobby isn’t strong enough.

Could I get some moonshine?

Hemlock?

Thing is, I went into opening night of Theatre Vertigo’s Carnivora with high spirits, noting it was a new play by a local writer/director who, according to this excellent Carnivora preview, shares my zeal for American Horror Story. As I got situated in the Shoebox Theatre, I saw that playwright/director Matthew Zrebski was in attendance, sitting with (another good omen) Jason Rouse, who directed a show I’d enjoyed just two weeks ago. This was gonna be good.

I was apprised of the general premise of the play: a bruised, battered and confused woman is dumped in the middle of the Ozarks in a burlap sack, and she has to re-collect her memories. Obviously, that’s edgy. It implies adult themes, and to dispel any doubt, a trigger warning was displayed in the lobby. So I expected Carnivora to be challenging and dark; I didn’t anticipate a cakewalk. But what I felt after sitting through this long, demented play was beyond “challenged” or “piqued.” I felt miserable, nauseous, harrowed, adrenally fatigued. Never mind Champagne; after this one I needed morphine.

Stephanie Cordell in “Carnivora.” Photo: Mario Calcagno

For a hot take on this play, picture a spinoff from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but with none of The Tempest‘s humor, and a mere croaky whisper of its fairy magic. Let’s call it “Caliban’s Family.” In a dirt-floored panic room that’s meant to represent a clearing in the woods in winter, we watch a family of three Calibans menace an already-battered woman. Among the monsters is a mother/captor figure who’s put the other two in chains, and who offers the woman a rough kind of comfort (specifically, her mud-covered teat to suckle). As the woman pieces together the experience that brought her to this place, we watch flashbacks of the varied and ever-escalating domestic violences she’s been involved in. We also watch her fall helplessly for the charms of a (clearly psychotic) roving preacher.

It’s never quite clear whether the Calibans (actually called Bobcat, Coyote and Woodwoman) are demons from another dimension or merely archetypes on the order of Charles Dickens’ Ignorance and Want. The Woodwoman seems to stand for Mother Earth, and her symbolism is the one merciful profundity in what’s otherwise a sensationalist slurry of psychosexual manipulation, blood, and mud. The idea here is, in a nutshell, that we’ve all gotta die for Earth to thrive—and there’s certainly a smack of inconvenient truth to that.

As these excrement-stained, blood-covered nightmare characters crouch mere feet from your face, drawling horrific threats and being choked by chains, you’ll definitely feel like a part of a scene—theater or otherwise—but with no safe-words to save you. In a confined space with a supposed run-time of 135 minutes that actually drags on a bit longer and feels like an eternity, watching this play is like withstanding one of those “escape room experiences,” except that here the puzzles are solved over and over, yet none of the revelations brings any relief and at some point, you start worrying that you’ll never be able to leave.

The first two Parts that precede intermission, “We Drink Your Madness, We Piss Your Blood” and “Remember the Prophet,” are plenty long and climactic enough to constitute the whole play—and for many audience members, they will. On opening night, I noticed several seats didn’t refill after intermission. The three Parts that follow intermission, “The Ballad of the Woodwoman,” “Ever Chained,” and “Saint Lorraine,” seem to endlessly reframe information we’ve already learned, either by enacting the events we’ve heard described, or describing events we’ve already watched transpire.

To the indefatigable actors of Theatre Vertigo, I want to say what I’ve said to my cat when she’s decapitated a creature: “Look at you! You’ve done such an amazing job…at such a sickening thing!”

First kudos, of course, go to the director—who is also the playwright, Zrebski, so suffice to say his direction has done his writing a great favor. Had these players not depicted the script’s grotesque imaginings so meticulously as to suspend disbelief completely, I can’t imagine how unbearable this play would be. (Oh wait, I can, because the maudlin ensemble folk song during “The Ballad of the Woodwoman” is the one part that’s impossible for even these actors to sell, proving by contrast how much their efforts throughout are helping.)

Stephanie Cordell as main character Lorraine is aches and woes personified; Nathan Dunkin as Garland is, as writ, calmly, psychotically f-ckable; Clara-Liis Hillier as Woodwoman is enchantedly foreboding, and Holly Wigmore and R. Davide Wyllie as her monstrous minions Coyote and Bobcat are (in fine Caliban form) equally menacing and pathetic. Tom Mounsey as Lorraine’s transparently-named husband Hunter is more sympathetic than you’d imagine a hulking wife-beater could ever get; James Luster as Lorraine’s son Charlie makes at turns a dashing, disarming man and a sweet, vulnerable boy; and Shawna Nordman as his sister Brenda keeps her performance as simple as writ (though we know from prior Vertigo productions she can do much more), playing at turns a convivial woman and a traumatized child. If you want to see incredible performances under punishing conditions, this is definitely the play for you.

“I set out not to be gratuitous or exploitative,” Zrebski told Marty Hughley in his preview interview. But I can’t honestly say Carnivora stays within those bounds. Over the course of the story, most characters are molested, manipulated, and eventually abused to death, and the carnage is drawn out and reiterated ad nauseum. Does this level of tragedy necessarily make a play Shakespearean, or Greek, or epic—or could it just be sophomoric and sick? This play certainly invites that debate.

Titus Andronicus called; he says this script could use some cuts. Oh, and the BDSM community says they love the chains and the choking, but the pacing could be a bit more disciplined. For precedent, see db. That story, surely as heavily researched and multifaceted as this, and also penned by a local playwright, was first made into a three-hour workshop performance, then pared down to around 90 minutes. Why not give this one that treatment? A well-executed edit could cut the run-time by up to half, and without lightening its mood, lessen its infliction of meta-torture on an audience. Maybe then when a character cries, “Make it stop!” no one from the audience will be so tempted to murmur, “Yes, please!”

I realize that some will see this polarizing play as a test of endurance, or even of intelligence, equating an inability to appreciate it with an incapacity to understand it. That’s fine. I may never be old enough, academic enough or misanthropic enough to steep myself in that much suffering, while you may. By all means, go in for this confrontation, but you may leave needing an exorcism. Or at least a drink.

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