“When Jane Goodall Goes Bad!” could be the banner headline for The Gallerist, a delectably lurid tale about demonic possession and soul survival by playwright Fengar Gael that is staged with purplish passion by Rorschach Theater.
If Gothic thrillers, The Picture of Dorian Gray and movies like “Rebecca” send you swooning, alight from the Victorian fainting couch and get on over to the Atlas Performing Arts Center for this world premiere production under the imaginative direction of Catherine Tripp. It’s freaky good fun.
Like Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, the play crisscrosses between two eras—present day New York and post World War I London. British art dealer Bertram Plover (Scott McCormick) angrily rattles the bars of his prison cell and then settles down to narrate a strange story told by his great-grandmother Lucille (Megan Reichelt) that leads to how he got into the pokey in the first place.
The setting for Lucille’s yarn is a London bestiary and its contents—both living and inert—that ensnare and bedevil a family. Selena Featherstone (Louise Schlegel) goes from lovely and envied society belle to gossiped-about nutter after her father’s death and a subsequent stint in the madhouse. Once back in her beloved family menagerie, Selena is like a deranged Dr. Doolittle, talking to animals that are not there. She is also displaying some rather unladylike behavior, crouching down and screeching ape-style hoots, much to her mother Vanessa’s (Sara Barker) imperious dismay.
At her wit’s end and wanting her gracious Selena back, Vanessa asks cousin Laura (Blair Bowers), an aspiring artist, to move into the bestiary and provide companionship—and also to try to paint Selena back to sanity. Laura, under the watchful eye of her friend Lucille, gives it her best and for awhile it seems to be working. Laura paints the fanciful and fantastic animals that Selena sees, and with every finished portrait, Selena seems to gain a little peace of mind.
However, Selena is still under the simian sway of the spirit of her father’s dead monkey Iago, who has taken up residence in her body and turns her into a very dirty girl indeed—which, as it turns out, is the manifestation of her father’s indecent, suppressed desires for his daughter. You don’t know whether to call a vet or Dr. Freud.
With equal doses of horror and humor, The Gallerist goes between Selena’s plight and increasingly desperate solutions, and what happened to Laura’s extraordinary paintings and Lucille’s account of the strange goings-on, which she set down in a novel called “The Beast Within.”
The over-the-top outlandishness of the play makes the subject matter enjoyable and palatable and the cast goes with the full-out energy of the production, with Miss Schlegel scarily convincing as the monkey-possessed woman, morphing from the fragile Selena to a hunkering, shrieking monster who greedily touches her body and spouts snippets of Shakespearean gibberish. Mr. McCormick brings wanton physicality to the role of Bertram Plover, and also to the tortured soul of Selena’s father Dominic Featherstone.
Miss Bowers is commanding as the warm and helpful Laura, who puts aside her feelings of jealousy toward Selena to help her and even for a time, love her. Miss Barker is another shapeshifter, going from the starchy, cutting Vanessa to a peppy, modern-day real estate agent only too happy to be wooed by Bertram. David Winkler brings comic drollery to a variety of roles, notably an insufferable prig of an art critic and Laura’s former fiancée, who dismisses her work with “women don’t have muses, darling. They are muses.”
David C. Ghatan’s set design—a latticework of bamboo poles that are either cages, prison cells or walls of a gallery—is evocative and flexible, using the most of a tight space. Laura’s paintings are rendered as squares of colored light, letting the audience project their visions of horror and beauty onto the pretend canvases.
The Gallerist could use some shortening and editing, since there is an overall air of repetitiveness, especially in the mad scenes to the point where it is almost a mad play. Despite these reservations, the play draws you in with its combination of creepiness and comedy, as well as how it play touches on the issue as to whether or not animals have souls—and what happens to them after they die—and the dangers of taking pets into your home and your heart and considering them almost human. More importantly, it speaks to the power of art to transform and transfix—and to heal.
The Gallerist (A Tale of Desecration and Desire)
By Fengar Gael
Directed by Catherine Tripp
Produced by Rorschach Theatre
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard