Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Vigil or the Guided Cradle

(I guess in the full disclosure department, although I've only actively worked with one person involved in this show, I'm good pals with most of them; plus, Crystal and John staged something for Nosedive's 10th Anniversary Gala back in March. Also, I paid for my ticket, if anyone really gives a dick about that sort of thing.)

The Vigil or the Guided Cradle, written by Crystal Skillman and directed by John Hurley, is simultaneously a horror story, historical fiction, contemporary political thriller, and a variation on the age-old "woman in peril" story.

What makes the piece work so well, in addition to the great writing, deft direction and spot-on acting, is that it's focused on the narrative and the characters, not about political talking-points. It's not interested in delivering a heavy-handed sermon about the horrors of torture so much as crafting an engaging story that lets the audience see for itself how torture takes its toll on the victim and the victimizer.

The show follows two concurrent narratives that complement each other. In one, Ippolito, an Italian interrogator in the 15th Century Prague has unveiled a new method of interrogation torture device that may render his associates (rivals?) redundant: the titular vigil or guided cradle. It is regarded as an innovation of style and the next phase of getting confessions out of imprisoned suspects.

As horrified as I was with Ippolito's invention, like his fellow "interrogator" played by Travis York, I was also fascinated with how he genuinely believed in his methods. He's not interested in being cruel so much as he is in being efficient and effective. He also seems to delude himself into thinking he's being merciful (although the vigil has the potential to cause serious physical harm, its main goal is to inflict mental and emotional—and therefore more "humane"—pain).

In the other storyline, Susan Louise O'Connor plays a young American woman touring present-day Prague who meets up with a handsome stranger played by Dion Mucciacito. He offers to serve as her impromptu translator and tour guide during her stay. And of course, as we get to know these two, we realize that their pasts are indirectly connected, and their relationship takes a sharp left turn.

The play flips back and forth between the two narratives, with a subtle yet substantial thread connecting them both (for example, in one scene, the present day tourist admires the Astronomical Clock in the Town Square; in another, Ippolito uses his new torture device on Jan, the son of the Clock's maker).

Skillman and Hurley ably show the thin membrane between the two centuries and plotlines, revealing that the differences between Ippolito tormenting Jan and Mucciacito's tour guide holding O'Connor's tourist hostage is by a matter of only a degree or two. But again, it's not delivering a sanctimonious message about how our current torture methods are medieval: it's using that concept as a given to tell an engaging narrative.

The cast—which also features Vinnie Penna and Alex Pappas—is excellent, with a couple members of the ensemble playing counterpart characters in both threads. Christian Rummel is perfectly cast as the intimidating yet sympathetic Ippolito. O'Connor is, as usual, great as the seemingly naïve tourist-turned-victim-turned-victimizer. Joseph Mathers also deserves applause for his grueling and convincing performance as the tortured Jan, who's unlucky enough to be one of the first people to have the new torture device used on him. It hurts just to watch him in this show.

Sylviane Jacobsen's set, Meryl Pressman & Holly Rihn's costumes, and Olivia Harris' lighting are also all powerful and effective.

At 70 minutes, the script could actually stand to be a little longer. In fact, my one major criticism is that the present-day storyline actually feels a bit truncated. And although it's always a good thing when you want more from a show, there's easily enough material here for a 90-100-minute story.

This quibble over the runtime aside (and yes, it's always better that a play be too short than overlong), The Vigil or the Guided Cradle is a taught piece of thought-provoking—and sometimes intense and harrowing—piece of theatre. I think it has life beyond this limited run at the Brick Theater, and I for one would like to see it remounted, with perhaps a few more minutes put into it.

The Vigil or the Guided Cradle is playing at the Brick Theater on 575 Metropolitan Ave. in Brooklyn until May 8. For tickets click here.

Cradling you in my arms,

James "Cruel and Unusual" Comtois

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