Jennifer Decker and Amy Warren in Mildred’s Umbrella’s production of Night of the Giant by John Harvey
Photo by Anthony Rathbun
Kafka was quoted as saying a good novel should be like a blow to the head. Then John Harvey’s new play, Night of the Giant, produced by Mildred’s Umbrella, is at least a blunt object to the frontal cortex. It’s not an easy ride, but one to ponder, wrestle with and puzzle through with all your literary faculties in the ready position.
The play opens with fraternal twins Barbara and Clare, who never quite got over causing their beautiful mother’s death in childbirth, holding their father hostage in their decaying living room. Dad or “It,” bound and hooded, slithers about like a captive pet, while the sisters babble fantasies of their royal lineage. Like a pair of Mrs. Haversham’s distant cousins, they are determined to relive the past and remake the future in a kind of call and response banter.
The two retell the tale of their deformed brother James, their father’s nasty habit of fashioning playmates for James through unspeakable acts, and their eventual choice to bag up James in a dumpster. They tell their tale like a nightly re-enactment ritual. Eventually, the truth comes out and it’s not pretty, but nor is it a garden variety of violence—more the stuff of nightmares and mythology. Think Brothers Grimm, but grimmer.
The three-person cast completely understands Harvey’s idiosyncratic approach to language, which is both formal and detached. Jennifer Decker imbues Claire with a bewitching clarity and shrewd determination. Amy Warren gives Barbara, the softer sister, a wonderful loony edge. She is positively diabolical when she polishes a new light bulb, a hilarious choice considering her housekeeping skills. Decker and Warren’s chemistry provides stability in Harvey’s wildly meandering script. Walt Zipprian as Joe/Dad/It spends the entire play with a burlap sack over his head and still manages to command the space.
Harvey directs with a disciplined hand, letting the more formal notes push to the center. There’s a musicality in his phrasing, which makes perfect sense as a small chamber orchestra sits slightly off to the side, making the setting all the more weird. According to Barbara, it’s a gift to dad who asked for music. What a gal. Elliot Cole’s original score adds a melancholic splendor—somber, nostalgic, and just beautiful enough to lure the listener into this sordid world. The fine orchestra included Melody Yenn (cello), Amanda Witt (clarinet), Lauren Winterbottom (oboe), Molly Marcuson (recorded harp) and Cole on harmonium.
Wayne Barnhill creates a disturbingly squalid living room that feels just plopped down. The play could be placed anywhere like a portable snow globe, largely due to Barnhill’s sense of no boundaries. In fact, Mildred’s Umbrella performed Night of the Giant in three venues. Ratty furniture, an empty bird cage with feathers strewn about and a side table crafted from what looks like old chicken bones conjure a world where something terrible just happened the moment before the lights went up. It’s a fragile world, as if one exhale could turn this whole cosmos into ashes. Kelly Robertson cleverly costumes Claire in a soiled prom dress and Barbara in a 1940s suit complete with a dead animal fur stole. Kevin Taylor’s lighting design blurs the edges just enough to keep us squirming in our seats.
So what do to with this material? You can go on a paradox scavenger hunt: there are gory details told in formal prose, a sense of claustrophobia with no clear container and an unsettling aftertaste soothed by haunting music. You can take the lit-wonk approach and mine influences of various creation myths and the seminal work of Pinter, Beckett and their gang. Harvey also mentions influences from Jose Donoso’s Obscene Bird of Night and Tom Wait’s Alice in his program note. The nod to Martin McDonagh’s work, specicially, The Pillowman, is ever present. That will keep you busy as Harvey operates with a considerable arsenal of references at his disposal. Or you can enjoy the play as a new chapter in Gothic theater, gruesome but strangely compelling and funny, if you allow yourself to see its glorious, absurd contours.
I prefer to look at Harvey’s play in its broad strokes. Who could deny a certain timeliness in a looking at people who take every ounce of their energy to believe false truths in the “news as fiction” era that we have all grown so complacent with. A volatile world held together by a threadbare promise of two disillusioned characters seems a familiar scenario. Don’t societies bag up their crimes all the time?
The lights go down as Barbara and Claire sew dear old dad in a bag, and in a final moment of unity, face each other with ultimate resolve to contain the truth as they know it. Night of the Giant isn’t exactly a play you would want to follow you home down the narrow, dimly lit back alley of your psyche, but chances are, it will anyway.
Reprinted from Houston ArtsWeek.