Playwright: Alistair McDowall
At: Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave. Tickets: SteepTheatre.com and 773-649-3186; $27-$38. Runs through: Aug. 24
In the course of our 85-minute play, an enthusiastic gamer will instruct a cool-cookie tyro in the protocol of Role-Playing Games ( aka RPGs )specifically, the game called "Cthulhu Awakens," based on the stories of science-fiction author H.P. Lovecraft.
Also, a pensive property owner will muse on the principle of "selective education" and issue a warning on the dangers of untoward curiosity ( "getting involved" ), citing instances of unlucky individuals proposing to overreach the limits of their authority, only to suffer punishment at the hands of powerful civic bossesatrocities so terrifying that miscreants choose suicide rather than risk capture.
We are unlikely to recall these helpful facts when we most need them, however, since they are preceded by a dizzying cavalcade of disturbing images, beginning with a leisurely drive around the perimeter of Manchester ( England ) in a vehicle resembling a "Dark-Ride" carnival-car, piloted by a motley-garbed Zeppo. Occupying the passenger seat is punkish teen Ollie, and in back is a black-robed figure with the head of a squid.
Ollie, we learn, has come seeking Zeppo's aid in finding her missing sister. After advising her to think carefully before embarking on the search, he directs her to Pomona, a now-deserted amusement park ( named for the benevolent Roman goddess, not the Los Angeles suburb ). This urban ruin, kept in isolated disrepair by its tenants and guarded by a pair of hired sentries, now houses a brothel where Ollie's sibling may have sought refuge and whose proprietor does not hesitate to order up a reluctant hit squad to eliminate troublemakers.
Oh, and by the way, playwright Alastair McDowall presents us with this information in non-chronological fragments, thus guaranteeing that the path of our heroine's quest, instead of resolving the mystery of the runaway girl, serves to raise more questions: who is the frightened young mother clutching a stolen laptop as she flees hidden pursuers? Why does one of the security guards beg to be beaten, even killed, by his partner? Why are all the characters named for early Hollywood icons? Are they avatars in a Dungeons & Dragons-style game played by the aforementioned RPG nerds, or are they the anesthetized visions of an unconscious patient undergoing surgery?
McDowall's merciless descriptions of a dystopian universe border on Grand- Guignol horror at times ( if hospitals give you the creeps, be prepared to cover your ears ), but never do director Robin Witt and the Steep Theatre ensemble abandon us to the confusion generated by our author's calculated mosaic narration. ( Did I mention the talking seagull with a scatological agenda? ) However unsure of our footing we may be after stepping off his vertigo-inducing carousel ride, we are secure in our knowledge of where we went before arriving at our destination.