Whatever there is to say about The Ice Child (and there’s a fair amount to say), no one can claim the play is spinning its wheels. To realize the tale of a girl captured and imprisoned in a basement freezer by her psychopath professor, the creative team has brought out as many bells and whistles as it can fit inside the rather small Mead Theatre Lab.
Conceptually the work is fascinating, a minimalistic hybrid of film and performance art. A large digital screen, broadcasting artfully photographed sequences on loop, rests in the middle of a stark white boxy construction that looks like it was lifted from the “modern” section of the American Art Gallery down the street. The actors emerge from behind the screen and project their lines from pedestals on either side (speaking into microphone stands, creating a slam-poetry vibe). They never face each other. There are no props, and not much in the way of stage direction. Ominous synths moan in the background.
This overly conscious effort to stand out makes sense when you consider how much the people behind The Ice Child have riding on the production: The play is the first original work put on by the three-year-old Factory 449, which last year won the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company. New companies, especially award-winning new companies, have an atmosphere like a pressurized chamber — or like that freezer the protagonist is trapped in. There’s only so much momentum in this box, and you have to keep innovating under scrutiny or you’ll suffocate and your muscles will freeze.
So is this approach an organic one that complements the story, or was it conceived out of oxygen-deprived desperation? The good news is that director Hunter Styles, a contributor to DC Theatre Scene, makes you believe it’s the former. When Sara Barker first steps onto the stage as the luckless Catherine, we see frost-tipped video footage of her predicament, and the effect is (terrible pun alert) chilling.
Despite the necessary limitations that have been placed on Barker, as well as those of the other three cast members (they’re essentially doing voiceovers), all of them turn in admirably unsettling work. Dexter Hamlett as the captor Kidd is a standout, though this seems by design — he has the most time on stage.
The inspirations for The Ice Child would be easy to pinpoint even if the press materials didn’t outline them. Factory 449 drew guidance from the writings of Ambrose Bierce and Edgar Allen Poe, and the play’s structure (bad things happen in enclosed spaces) mimics one of those authors’ seminal short stories. There’s also more than a bit of 21st-century “torture porn” vulgarity: We’re treated to detailed descriptions of both Catherine’s piss and Kidd’s depraved sexual desires.
But unlike the works of Bierce and Poe, who knew how to write with gripping, twisty throughlines, The Ice Child plods and muddles early and often. The unorthodox structure isn’t the problem – it’s the dialogue, which feels undercooked despite the play’s three credited writers (Styles and Factory 449 cohorts Lisa Hodsoll and Rick Hammerly). Characters, particularly Kidd, go long stretches barely acknowledging there’s a girl locked in the basement. They sneer, scream, pontificate and recite nursery rhymes at each other, in detours that are at first irritating, then disengaging.
We further lose sight of the big picture when the play detours into issues of infidelity, as Kidd’s wife (Karin Rosnizeck) takes up an affair with the young Wilson (David Landstrom), who is … actually, who is this guy? Is he another student of Kidd’s? Just a friend? Someone else? Why does Kidd tell him there are bugs under his skin? If there was an explanation for his character, it flitted by in disguise and left none the wiser.
Yet for all this lack of focus (in a one-hour play!), the biggest concern is the manner in which the production treats the very person whose life is at stake. For much of the play Catherine feels like the superfluous one, the fourth wheel, a mere device with which to explore everyone else’s problems. We learn a few key details about her which aren’t worth spoiling, but nothing crucial to the story ever protrudes from her own lips.
Catherine is left in the dark, in every sense — all decisions are made around her, and the writers paint her crisis (which, beyond a few meek pleas, she makes no attempt to escape from) as a backdrop to Kidd’s personal demons. This feels patently unfair, and seems the wrong sort of direction for Factory 449, especially considering all the thought and care that went into the overall presentation. Why cheapen such a horrific predicament by telling the girl locked in the freezer she’s the least essential part of her own story?
There is no arc to Catherine. She does not grow; she has no realization; she has no means to fight back. She sits around and waits for the end. After a while, so do we. The clock’s ticking, and the air in this box is thinning.
The Ice Child
Written by Lisa Hodsoll, Rick Hammerly and Hunter Styles
Directed by Hunter Styles
Produced by Factory 449
Reviewed by Andrew Lapin
Running time: 1 hour, no intermission.