Mazes and monsters

Two trips to the dark side.

The Red Room

Richard Hugo House ends April 29

SOMEONE SPIKED S.P. Miskowski’s mint julep with something foul before she wrote The Red Room. Her potboiler about three sisters (Morgan Rowe, Susan Riddiford, and Beth Peterson) driven to crazed distraction in their Georgia family home plays like a nasty, drunken retort to Crimes of the Heart.

The siblings’ dysfunction comes complete with the expected overripe metaphor (in this case, something about trapped, horny bees) and languorous, drawling ruminations on the order of “Yew evah wunder whut makes sumbody dead?” Everything is self-consciously dripping with molestation, incest, and murder. Stylized psychological trappings—particularly Etta Lilienthal’s striking, transparent funhouse set—have you puzzled as to whether director Leslie Swackhamer is doing a balls-out Southern Gothic or a clever deconstruction of one. By the time John Paulsen’s leering gentleman caller shows up for the lurid, ahem, climax, you’ve pretty much had enough. And how’s this for the final, tawdry twist: I liked it anyway.

Miskowski’s lyrical affectations become addictive, and Swackhamer poses them memorably (Riddiford and Peterson hissing at each other over candlelight, or the stark silhouette of all three women standing over their mother’s grave). The steadfast performances eventually throttle all resistance, especially Rowe’s “excitable” Louise, who flounces about with sweet good humor and, thankfully, not an ounce of comment.

The show has the same appeal as one of those thick, musty medical encyclopedias that you’d compulsively pore over as a child, perusing photos of all kinds of festering diseases—you submit to its frank grotesqueness. I wouldn’t call it Art, but it has obsessive drama.

The Obscene Bird of Night

Open Circle Theater ends May 5

MAGIC REALISM, that slippery and distinctly Latin literary genre that blends high-flown fantasy into the trials of everyday life, is difficult to pin down into solid theatrical form. The story of a freakishly deformed child in Chile fathered by a sold-out writer and a corrupt politician, Juan Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night is filled with creatures and conceits that in Open Circle’s production come off as no more than an excitable parade of masks.

The show does eventually calm itself and reveals some heart, yet its passionate concerns about the endless cycle of the mute underclass are too ardently studied. Darrah Cloud’s hectic adaptation and Melanie White’s direction display a lot of effort, but not enough ease. Eric Newman’s stiff Don Jeronimo, the tormented fascist patriarch, becomes less a character than A Very Important Man in a Suit. Only Marty Mukhalian, doing fine work as a sympathetic “freak” doctor, gives full-bodied, empathetic illustration of Donoso’s humanity.

Production notes state that “the play features a cast of 13 actors performing more than 37 roles in half a dozen settings spanning a period of nearly 400 years.” Well, no wonder, then—the show’s commendable ambitions are simply beyond its means; it can only shuttle people and furniture around so many times before it seems like that’s all it’s doing. Book-It, Seattle’s literary troupe, finesses similar challenges all the time. But it utilizes something this production needs and cannot have: the rest of the text. Without the surrounding prose to anchor it, the tale has none of the buoyant mystery of magic, and too little of the sadness of reality.