Caryl Churchill's "The Skriker" opens on a torrent of words.
Restlessly pacing a set that's a mashup between a fairy forest and a blasted urban wasteland, the nightmarish creature for whom the play is named kicks off the action with a monologue as intriguing as it is incomprehensible. Hang on tight — this Fortune's Fool Theatre production only gets stranger as it goes along.
There's Lily (Haley Sisler), who's about to have a baby, and her friend Josie (Gabrielle Dominique), who killed her own child in the throes of postpartum psychosis. Then there's the Skriker (Ariel Leaf), a sly shape shifter who alternately attempts to seduce both young women. Around this triangle revolves a host of ghastly creatures drawn from British folklore.
As a playwright, Churchill isn't afraid to bring experimental techniques to bear on knotty feminist and political topics (cross-gender casting in "Cloud Nine," rhyming couplets in "Serious Money," nonlinear structure in "Top Girls"). "The Skriker," which premiered in 1994 and has rarely been produced since, takes on global ecology by embodying Mother Nature as a diseased and malevolent fairy seeking her revenge.
As if the world of this play weren't otherworldly enough, Churchill has also created a richly textured language for the Skriker, weaving homonyms, puns, riddles and allusions ("no mister, no missed her, no mist, no miss. No me no?" is just a small sample) into a giddy piece of sinister nonsense.
Leaf tackles the language challenge with gusto, delivering the sense if not the meaning of the text through tone, expression and attitude. Her Skriker may look like something out of "The Walking Dead," but she tempers the horror-show effect with mercurial charm and edgy humor. Sisler and Dominique also offer strong work, Sisler's cocky self-assurance nicely complementing Dominique's barely restrained and all-too-warranted sense of dread.
While this central triptych is compelling, director Ben Layne isn't completely successful in integrating the main action with the netherworld that swirls around it. Too often, the large cast of assorted fairies and spirits seems oddly superfluous to the action, off in corners doing their own mysterious business.
That's a small quibble in the face of this ambitious undertaking by Fortune's Fool. The blighted atmosphere of Séan McArdle's plastic-wrapped set (which takes on a magical look under Joanna McLarnan's lighting), Keith Hovis' eerily beautiful original music and Tracy Swenson's collection of inventively tattered costumes beautifully evoke Churchill's bleak vision of fairyland, while Leaf's captivating performance as the Skriker offers a chilling reminder that it's not nice to fool Mother Nature.
Lisa Brock is a Twin Cities theater critic.