The Skriker
Raleigh Ensemble Players @ ArtSpace
Through Oct. 25

It takes guts and imagination to stage a complex, cerebral work on a limited budget in a limited space. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. Such is the case with Raleigh Ensemble Players’ production of Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker, which takes an already-difficult text and manages to make it more oblique. The production has a certain Gothic power, but most audience members will leave asking “What just happened?” I know, because everyone I surveyed after the show I saw said this.

The Skriker is a modern-day update of numerous dark fairy tales, most notably the myth that faeries leave changelings in the place of human infants. A shape-shifting faerie known as a “skriker” or “screamer,” played by various members of the ensemble, has decided to track down two British girls, Josie (Collette Rutherford) and Lily (Whitney Griffin); the skriker has already helped lead Josie to kill her baby and is now after the pregnant Lily. This evil apparition, whose world is fading, appears in different human guises to Lily in her equally bleak real world, trying to draw Lily in.

Churchill has much of the story narrated by a pale woman (Lori Engle) in an elaborate, punning style reminiscent of James Joyce. The set for this production is a series of painted chairs in a circle, with an overturned piano serving as the major prop. It’s a claustrophobic, chilling atmosphere, but it doesn’t allow for much movement, and at times the story is almost incomprehensibleparticularly the 15-minute-long opening monologue, which sets up a good bit of the story but might inflict severe pain to your frontal lobe. Some productions have one person playing the skriker in its different aspects, but the use of multiple actors here serves as a distraction, resulting in scene after scene where a new character turns out to be an evil faerie. The effect draws attention away from the dialogue and the ideas contained therein.

Shannon Clark’s costumes have a layered, Neil Gaiman-esque creepiness, but the overall effect of The Skriker is a series of confusing scenes that end in bloodcurdling screams. Raleigh Ensemble Players deserve credit for taking on such a complex play, but their production doesn’t quite pull it off. It sticks with youbut you’ll probably leave wondering exactly what it was you saw. Zack Smith

The Eyes of Babylon
Common Ground Theatre
Through Oct. 19

Based on the journal of Lance Cpl. Jeff Key that the Marine kept during his two months in Iraq, The Eyes of Babylon is an intimate, critical examination of the war, its conception and its probable aftereffects. Key, with the help of director Yuval Hadadi, has performed his protest piece internationally and was the subject of a Showtime documentary in 2007.

The play begins, appropriately, when news of 9/11 reaches Key. “There had never been a people as beloved as we were then,” Key notes, quoting also the powerful Le Monde headline, “We are all Americans now.” Powerfully affected by this feeling of unity, Key joined the Marinesdespite the difficulties posed by his status as a gay man.

His tour ended prematurely, however: After two months in Iraq, Key was flown home for a non-combat related surgery. He was greeted by an America that seemed alien to him and by unsettling news of the war that hadn’t reached him in Iraq. Key resolved to dedicate his time to speaking honestly about the war in Iraq and why he believes we shouldn’t be there.

The result, The Eyes of Babylon, vacillates between monologue, spoken word and reenactment. Key often portrays his scenes from Iraq with strong imagery: Particularly effective are his endearing encounter with a gay Iraqi and his brief friendship with Mehadi, an Iraqi child who guides him around his native village. These scenes are memorable because they are rare exports from an inflamed country and war-burdened citizenry.

Key’s physicality throughout the play is often appropriately that of a straight-backed Marine. However, this verisimilitude of character at times creates a static atmosphere that begs the question of whether some of Key’s memories would have been better in written format. Despite this pitfall, The Eyes of Babylon definitely remains a worthwhile experience for everyone regardless of political persuasion, and its honesty is a tonic for all during this charged political season. Megan Stein

Speaking Without Tongues
Hidden Voices @ The ArtsCenter
(Closed Oct. 11 at The ArtsCenter; upcoming performances: Oct. 21 at the Farrison-Newton building on N.C. Central campus; Oct. 28 at the Student Union on UNC-Chapel Hill campus)

Hidden Voices, the Cedar Grove-based mission group that seeks to inspire women and men to speak out about issues ranging from the hardships of immigration to incarceration to domestic violence, has brought another moving docudrama to life on stage. And while the title evokes an image of words floating amid a black sea of silence, the show’s opening night was filled with glorious laughter and excited chatter as the seats of The ArtsCenter in Carrboro slowly filled to capacity.

Compiled by Hidden Voices program director Lynden Harris from true-life accounts, Speaking Without Tongues is an emotional retelling of numerous personal accounts of domestic violence and abuse through a multicultural cast. These stories and personal narratives were gathered over the years through the Hidden Voices project; some came directly from the women cast members and others were gathered in private.

With its cacophony of voices spelling out snippets of personal stories of abuse, the show is at its most beautiful and thought-provoking in these small vignettes; indeed, the individual testimonies tilt the emotional Richter scale from heartbreak to inspiration. However, when viewed as a whole, the script’s mostly muddled construction is its major downfall. Harris uses the framework of the classic fairytale The Armless Maiden to pinion the play’s structure with an unseen narrator reading verses from the tale. Cast members then add to the fairytale with their personal narratives of violence and abuse. This formula is meant to edify rather than confuse, but with the bilingual cast, pronoun shifts and misspoken lines lead to difficulties. Nonetheless, the stories are important, and the heartfelt acting does credible justice to the message of survival and reform, thus creating an intenseat times, magicalevening. Kathy Justice

An accompanying photography exhibit by domestic abuse survivors remains on view in the lobby of The ArtsCenter through Oct. 20.

Raleigh Little Theatre
Through Oct. 26

Ira Levin’s evergreen stage thriller Deathtrap is about, well, coming up with the perfect stage thriller. It’s perhaps one of the most self-referential hits of all time, with every last character pointing out the possible turns of the plot and how they’re in a thriller-like situation. Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of the 30-year-old hit can’t help but feel a bit dated, but it still holds a fair amount of the show’s intended shocks and laughs.

Jim Aldridge plays blocked playwright Sidney Bruhl, who’s commiserating over his latest flop with his wife, Myra (Debra Zumbach Grannan), at their Connecticut home. A student has just sent him a surefire smash called Deathtrap, and wouldn’t you know, he only has one copy. As the student, Clifford (Tony Feole), shows up, Myra attempts to talk Sidney out of stealing the play for himself, leading to a dozen or so plot twists that don’t deserve to be spoiled.

Anton Chekov famously dictated that if there is a gun hung over the fireplace in the first act, it must be fired by the third. In Deathtrap, the walls are lined with dozens of weapons, and the fun is figuring out which will be used and to what ends. The play’s 1978 origins show on occasion; there’s a running bit about a psychic (Jenny Anglum) that feels like a period touch, and some of the self-referential jokes feel self-congratulatory. There’s also a number of theater references that some audience members won’t get. But Deathtrap still has the power to make audience members laughand occasionally jump out of their seats. Zack Smith

Stagelight Productions @ Kennedy Theatre, Progress Energy Center
Through Oct. 26

Before there was “Weird Al” Yankovic, there was Tom Lehrer. Though his reign of albums and touring only lasted for a short period, Lehrer’s satirical songs amassed a large following that has lasted over the years, cumulating in the 2000 box set The Remains of Tom Lehrer. Stagelight’s presentation of Tomfoolery showcases Lehrer’s best work, though the staging often doesn’t live up to the songs.

All the big ones are here, from “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” to “The Masochism Tango” to “We’ll All Go Together When We Go.” The songs are acted out by an ensemble, but the results are mixed: The choreography is often lacking, and the staging sometimes obscures the lyrics. Music director Coty Cockrell, who also performs, fares best with elaborate dance moves and a manic persona. There’s some updated lyrics here and there, but the linking material makes the show feel more like a time capsule than a showcase for the relevance of Lehrer’s work.

Despite the problems with the staging, this is still great materialand songs like “The New Math,” “Send in the Marines” and “When You Are Old and Gray” still pack a satirical punch. It’s great to see these performed liveand if you’re not familiar with Lehrer’s songs, here’s a chance to experience his work live. Zack Smith