By Hephzibah Dutt
The Living Room Theatre’s Emma Carter gifts us with an incisively clever new play, Wicked Creatures.
Set in Victorian England, Carter’s 90-minute play invokes a host of hard topics, all of which are comically juxtaposed against the facade of Victorian gentility. Factor in superbly-subtle exposition, dynamic characters, witty dialogue and a relentless undercurrent of humor and horror, and the result is a darkly funny, culturally-relevant play that simultaneously entertains and challenges.
Cross-dressing and culturally-forward Sonja Smithson (Ellen Kirk) and her pure-hearted cousin, Emily (played by the playwright) “acquire” an experimental test object in the form of Archibold Worthington III (Brian Huther), a professor and proponent of Victorian gender ideals. In Sonja’s pursuit of developing the perfect female contraceptive, she hires a prostitute, the vulgar but good-natured, Clara Hollowell. Set against the elegance of an English county manor, and in the name of science of social service, terrible deeds are wrought against poor Archie. “Incorruptibly good” Emily is torn between dutiful gratitude and conscience while Clara is embroiled in the vagaries of class difference, and a yearning to improve her lot in life. Gender roles, experimentation ethics, class struggle, rape, abortion, miscarriage, marriage, contraception— all these are stirred to the surface. Without any easy resolutions or a trace of sermonizing, this production ultimately showcases dangers of any sort of extremism, be it gender roles, science, or silence.
A playwriting seminar offered by The Living Room Theatre was the genesis-pod for this new work. Carter shared that she was jump-started (by a homework assignment) into a play that was on its way to becoming a Victorian fantasy-horror flick. Along the way, she stumbled into real-life horrors of extreme gender-dualities and the strifed realities of pregnancy, childbirth, abortion and miscarriages in a time when contraceptives for women were little more than a distant “holy grail.” The rigour of her dramaturgical process is evident in the careful (but not stringent) historicity of the play, and delightful use of intertextuality. She weaves in Darwin, Ruskin’s, “Of Queen’s Garden,” The Scarlet Letter, and various myths all to great effect. Carter’s clever use of Ruskin’s text, in particular forms a lynchpin of sorts; it offers the debated ideal of women in the Victorian age (…She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good”), while exposing the troubling angel-whore dichotomies that ensue. Indeed, a recurring theme is the danger of extreme polarizations, and Carter’s characters reflect our own retaliatory, self-righteous tendencies back at us. Consider how Sonja works to resist gender oppression, only to participate in classist superiority—one that inveigles an uneducated, needy person into committing horrible crime against another.
I am delighted that this complex script was brought to its first fruition by such an all-around strong ensemble. For a cast of characters that could have easily become caricatures, Kirk, Carter, Curtis, Huther and Jacobs instead deliver fully-rendered, honest portrayals of human beings who evoke our empathy. An especially warm commendation to Jacobs and Huther. Their skill is never more palpable than in the rape scene: balancing humor and brutality, they tickle us into laughter and simultaneously chill us with the solemnity of what we witnessed. Shawnna Journagan’s directorial prowess is evident: without her dynamic staging, this dialogue-heavy script would have devolved into clunky, talky play. If there is one critique to offer, it was the restraint of the climactic scene. The production seemed like it was straining to be unhinged, and I longed to see the characters and action pushed –just for a moment—to the completely raw, animalist edge of reason and chaos… for, after all, we are promised monsters in the woods.