The NECROPOLIS Series
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
August 8, 2007
Gemini CollisionWorks's hypnotic new revival of Ian W. Hill's NECROPOLIS #0&3: Kiss Me, Succubus and At the Mountains of Slumberland shows one of indie theater's most singular and unique talents working at full power. These two one-acts show Hill in top boundary-breaking form as he pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft, classic comic strips, and 1960s exploitation movies in the typically fearless fashion theatergoers have come to expect from him.
Kiss Me, Succubus begins with a group of four 1960s jet-setters (two couples) sitting around watching an artsy porn movie. Growing bored quickly with both the film and each other, they head off to a nearby party where—lo and behold—they meet the four performers from the movie. The Decadent Man, the unspoken leader of the jet-setters, invites them all back to his house where he envisions a full-fledged sex swap transpiring (he is taken with the lead actress, The Countess, forsaking both his wife and his mistress). Once everyone is at his pad, all seems to be going according to plan, until it becomes clear that the porn actors have a far more devilish agenda of their own.
Hill, who also directs, stylistically heightens the proceedings quite a bit. The most obvious of these touches is his decision to have the actors lip-synch all of their dialogue to a pre-recorded audio track. This tactic unexpectedly emphasizes the theatricality of the production: unburdened from having to completely learn their lines, the actors have free reign to create vivid, over-the-top physical characterizations, which they do with lip-smacking gusto. The way the formidable Stacia French, playing The Countess, casually swings her hips whenever she walks will likely raise an eyebrow or two. Alyssa Simon's wide-eyed, lip-trembling fear as The Wife induces quite a few laughs. The rest of this terrific cast—Jody Christopherson, Peter Handy, Patrick Cann, Jessica Savage, Douglas Scott Sorenson, and Hill—all get equally good moments.
Hill revels in Succubus's campy exploitation film genre. A wonderful little oh-so-1960s dance number in the middle of the show clarifies everyone's relationships and their motives. Cheesy character traits (like The Wife's erotic attraction to knives and elephants) and dialogue abound: when one of the women admits that she's inexplicably 155 years old, one of the men responds, "Good—I like older women." And Hill's decision to have the porn actors lip-synch something other than the audio track (perhaps their lines in a different language, I'm guessing) makes them even more mysteriously exotic.
At the Mountains of Slumberland is a different animal altogether. Hill takes Little Nemo, the comic strip brainchild of pioneering cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay, and plunges him into an H.P. Lovecraft netherworld of pale faces, sphinxes, and ghastly menace. Guided by the kindly intellectual, Randolph Carter, Nemo must navigate this perilous slumberland to find his way back to the world of the waking.
Slumberland retains the overdubbed dialogue device of Succubus, but does its own thing. Attempting to emulate the format of comic book paneling, Hill stages the play as an extended series of tableaus in which the characters pose while the dialogue plays over them as voiceover. One of Slumberland's conceits is Hill's choice that none of the characters ever actually move their mouths when they're talking (except, in one or two instances, for Nemo). This device is executed admirably by Hill and his company, evoking the living comic book effect I assume he's aiming for. However, it also makes it easy for viewers to sometimes tune out: since there's nothing really happening on stage (at least, not in a conventional sense), the audience must double their focus on the voiceovers since that, for all intents and purposes, is where the acting happens. Theatergoers not used to such unorthodox techniques may have a tough go of it, but those who are willing to meet Slumberland on its own terms will be very glad they did.
I must also add that Slumberland is one of the most visually stunning productions I've seen in a while. Hill creates a haunting collage of stage pictures that go a long way towards communicating his theme (the influence of dreams on art and vice versa). Clad in black clothes and whiteface makeup, the actors slide into one striking image after another, illuminated only by the production's sinister and cold lighting design. A monster/demon that chases Nemo throughout—created simply by several of the actors throwing a black veil over themselves—is especially creepy.
The entire cast—Amy Liszka, Peter Bean, Art Wallace, Bryan Enk, Gyda Arber, Aaron Baker, Linda Blackstock, and Sammy Tunis—does remarkable work with both the physical and thematic demands of the play, and the co-design by Hill and Berit Johnson is inventively spooky.
Hill has taken over the Brick Theater for the entire month of August, during which he will run the other half of his sprawlingly ambitious NECROPOLIS Series (the spectacular film noir pastiche, World Gone Wrong/Worth Gun Willed) in repertory with Kiss Me, Succubus & At the Mountains of Slumberland. For theatre-goers who have never experienced the inventive and uncompromising work of this veteran indie auteur, I can't think of a better time to do so than right now.