Where: Steep Theatre,
1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
When: through Sept. 14
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Deliberately impenetrable plays are not my cup of tea. Add an ample dose of violence, and I’d just as soon be elsewhere, especially if the theater is very intimate.
British playwright Alistair McDowall’s “Pomona” at tiny Steep Theatre is one of those chronology-challenged dramas that shuffles scenes to create an aura of mystery, throws together a lot of story lines so it’s hard to keep them straight, withholds crucial information until late in the game, introduces ideas without fully following through on them, and insists we sort out the puzzle pieces if we want to understand the point of it all. At all.
It’s also a dystopian nightmare that doesn’t pull any punches, literally. Blood and gore, as well as other bodily excretions, are seen and/or described in detail, sometimes as a means of destroying the whole city. McDowall seems to be indicting us for….well, almost everything, but particularly our penchant for ignoring the evil and corruption all around even when we see them. He also views the situation as cyclical—just like the fate of the real island of Pomona in Manchester, England, described in the program—and questions whether it is even possible to be good under such circumstances. No wonder the show was a big hit in London with younger audiences!
Here, under Robin Witt’s direction, the opening sequence sets the tone for the confusing horror story to come. A young woman named Ollie (Amber Sallis) is riding around Manchester’s ring road with an older man named Zeppo (Peter Moore), who says he owns almost everything including the now desolate concrete island, but adds – repeatedly – that he doesn’t like to get involved.
Before that, though, he recounts the plot of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” at great length, even though Ollie, like most people, has seen the movie. On top of this, he launches into a discourse about his love of chicken nuggets, which he is munching, telling Ollie that he eats 100 a night and that he became curious about how they’re made, information he could just look up on his phone but doesn’t – because he doubts he’d be better off for knowing.
We eventually learn that Ollie is looking for her sister who went missing, but we don’t find out who sent her to Zeppo or why until much later, nor is it made clear that the sister is her twin. Zeppo is disinclined to encourage her search, but does give her a tip.
All this time, a creature is sitting in the back seat of the car. It has a humanoid body with the head of an octopus, and horror story fans might recognize it as Cthulhu, a fictional cosmic Great Old One created by H.P. Lovecraft. But the only recognition it gets at this point is Zeppo periodically instructing Ollie to hand it an oversize multifaceted crystal, which she does.
This monster pops up periodically but isn’t identified until much later in the 100-minute evening, when Charlie (Brandon Rivera), a young man who works as a security guard on the island and wants to be good, finally find a partner for a “Dungeons and Dragons”-like role playing game. She’s a serious, mysterious young woman named Keaton (Phoebe Moore), who’s apparently rich (though her faux fur coat doesn’t look it), and the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired game is of Charlie’s devising. It involves a woman who is looking for her missing sister, and the goal is for Keaton to keep the cult of Cthulhu from causing the creature to rise again, bringing chaos. The die Charlie and Keaton cast look just like the crystals in Zeppo’s car, only smaller.
While McDowall obviously is linking the game to his story, he doesn’t connect the dots very well. Instead, we get a tale of nefarious subterranean activities on the island, among them prostitution, possible snuff movies, organ harvesting, planting babies in women’s bodies, and women disappearing.
Charlie and his violence-prone coworker Moe (Nate Faust) are responsible for keeping people from coming on the island and for guarding the vans that unload there nightly, but they don’t know what’s in the vans or what they’re supposed to be protecting. Their boss seems to be Gale (Jamila Tyler), a tough but frightened woman with a hair style suggesting a devil’s horns, who also orders them to get rid of the possibly mythical “girl,” who turns out to be Fay (Ashlyn Lozano), a sex worker who has stolen Gale’s laptop with incriminating information she plans to take to the authorities.
Fay also befriends newer prostitute Ollie—or maybe it’s Ollie’s missing sister; her costume is different but the distinction is never clear, and it’s possible Ollie’s sister is imaginary. I wasn’t sure, nor could I figure out if one or both of them got out of there alive.
If you can’t make heads or tails of this, “Pomona” probably isn’t for you. But Steep does earn points for inventive staging. The “car” at the beginning is a case in point. Constructed of three barrels, it rotates slowly on a turntable, so that audience members on both sides of the oblong stage can see the actors’ expressions. Scenic designer Joe Schermoly also has come up with an immersive environment of arching brick columns that conjures up an abandoned underground subway or something similar and is complemented by Brandon Wardell’s lighting.