Strange days: It’s ‘Carnivora’ time

Preview: Matt Zrebski's new gothic horror play at Vertigo grapples with "a 21st-century ride that’s out of control"

Winter, as Portlanders have recently been reminded, can be home to strange and powerful forces, to elements as seductive as they are potentially deadly. So to find yourself, caked in blood yet with no clear memory of what’s happened, dumped in a burlap sack in a woodland clearing, in the middle of a hard winter, you might only imagine the kind of fears that would visit you, the creatures of myth and psyche that could stalk such vulnerable moments.

Such is the predicament of Lorraine, the protagonist of “Carnivora,” writer/director Matthew B. Zrebski’s new play for Theatre Vertigo, opening Friday night at the Shoebox Theatre. Beset by fantastical beasts, haunting illusions, and fragmentary memories, Lorraine undergoes a harrowing adventure to rediscover her past and her own terrible secret.

Swathed in lurid atmosphere, flecked with colorfully profane language, almost writhing with a twisting narrative structure that reflects Lorraine’s confused and conflicted state, it’s what Zrebski calls “a psychological horror-tragedy.” However, he’s quick to point out that “this isn’t a creaky old slasher play.”

“From a marketing perspective, I suspect it’s great to call it a horror play — I’ve been calling it my 21st-century ‘Scream.’ But I did not set out to write a horror play….Horrific elements have been used forever. But because of too much cheap cinema we’ve devalued the genre.”

Zrebski

Indeed, as Zrebski points out, his script draws as much from surrealism, magical realism and mythology as it does from the tension-ratcheting tropes of contemporary American horror. The story is set in the Ozarks, which allowed Zrebski to draw on family cultural roots in Northern Arkansas for what he calls the play’s “mountain gothic” style. At the same time, he’s no stranger to the genre. “You can’t really have a conversation with him that doesn’t touch on ‘The Exorcist’ or ‘American Horror Story,’” says Vertigo company member Nathan Dunkin.

Theatre Vertigo commissioned Zrebski to write the play specifically for its core ensemble, part of its ongoing mission to present a world-premiere play each season. (And this one is part of Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival of new works.) By working with Zrebski, an associate artist who actually has worked with Vertigo longer than any of the current company members, the group got the comfort of familiarity as well as a common taste for work that, in Dunkin’s words, is both “visceral and lyrical.”

Whatever genre designation you might want to put on “Carnivora,” it comes from a rich vein in Zrebski’s creative work. As he puts it, “I have a driving force around the exploration of fear.”

A longtime teaching artist at Oregon Children’s Theatre and in Portland Center Stage’s Visions and Voices program, Zrebski has delved into similar atmospheres and anxieties in plays for young performers, quasi-apocalyptic ensemble fever dreams such as “Ablaze” (developed at Portland’s Lincoln and Wilson high schools before a 2013 professional production by Staged!) and “Chrysalis” (for OCT’s Young Professionals program last spring).

“This play and ‘Chrysalis’ are in a sense coming from the same place — they are cousin plays,” he acknowledges. “One is more from fairy-tale mythology, the other is more about religious and cult mythologies.”

Clara Hillier as Woodwoman and Stephanie Cordell as Lorraine. Photo: Gary Norman

Some of the dangerous seductions in “Carnivora” come courtesy of a very un-mythic, albeit charismatic, cult leader (played by Dunkin) whose obsession is yet another fear, of sorts, that Zrebski has addressed. “Texting the Sun,” a 2010 piece for the OCT/Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre Program, dealt with concerns about a generation growing up fully immersed in interactive technology and social media. In “Carnivora,” add in suspicions about the egocentric dynamics of an all-pervasive celebrity culture, and you have a semi-coherent vision of society on the brink. Serve that up with an unhealthy dose of messianism, to folks frustrated by weakening economic and social-value structures around them, and a bizarre cult web snags even the well-educated and well-meaning Lorraine.    

“It’s not meant to be any sort of political allegory or satire,” Zrebski says. “At its most abstract, it’s an exploration of a 21st-century ride that’s out of control. And it’s about what people do when they reach a point of absolute desperation….There’s a heartache in this play. I’m very interested in those moments when our desire to have empathy and our desire to pass judgment collide.”

“I’m curious about how people are going to view the characters’ journeys — the morality, or the lack of that,” echoes Vertigo member Stephanie Cordell, who plays Lorraine. (In part because she’s a full-time teaching artist with the Educational Theatre Program, Cordell performs in only one show each season. But she might be one of the city’s most under-recognized acting talents, and one of the reasons “Carnivora” is intriguing is that it puts her in the thick of one  theatrically heightened scene after another.)                  

“There’s so much material in (the play), so many themes,” notes Dunkin. But to me the one that stands out is cognitive dissonance: People doing things they don’t really believe in. Good people making bad choices and trying to justify them.”

Zrebski says he’s never worked harder on a play than he has on “Carnivora,” not because of its tricky time-shifting narrative structure, but because Vertigo provided him with the resources (time, workshops with the actors, a paid dramaturg…) to do so. As usual, he’s also composed his own music for the production, not just a few folk-inspired songs, but a full percussion score to be performed by the actors, allowing him to avoid pre-recorded sounds, thus enhancing what he describes as a “really tactile” theatrical feel, not something cinematic.

And, of course, he wants that theatricality energized with a jolt of fear.

“Theater in this day and age is kind of a genteel art form. I set out — not to be gratuitous or exploitative — but to tell this story in a very unapologetic and authentic fashion. If it rattles people out of their normal experience, then I think that’s good.”

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“Carnivora”opens Friday, January 20, at Theatre Vertigo and continues through February 18. Ticket and schedule information here.

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And speaking of winter: Because of inclement weather on Jan. 7, Vertigo rescheduled its fundraiser “Wild Woods: an Eerie Winter Bash” for Sunday, Jan. 29, 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. In addition to drinks and hors d’oeuvres, tarot readings and music, the company will present a short play inspired by “Carnivora.” Zrebski describes it as akin to a piece of fan fiction, although he’s written it himself. The piece fills in a tangential piece of the story, presenting the cult leader Garland on a trip to Ohio that he mentions in the course of “Carnivora.”

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