at Bedlam Theatre through March 23
The experience of watching Iron Mermaiden defies easy description, but let's have a go at it anyway. Imagine you're sitting comfortably with a high fever, watching a beauty pageant on cable access with a head full of codeine cough syrup while simultaneously reading a Naomi Klein book and hallucinating giant blackbirds and menacing spiders who threaten to drag you into some murky underworld of human bondage (guess it wasn't so hard, after all). The action begins with the appearance of Eugene (Mike Harris) and Eugenia (Rah Kojis), two humanoid buzzard creatures who serve as masters of ceremonies for the first act (Bram Krogh's costume design lends the production a creepy, ragtag elegance from beginning to end), an oft-macabre beauty competition in which the contestants are all mermaids. There's an off-kilter burlesque by Delphine (Kelly Diouf), a sex-obsessed ventriloquist's dummy and his minder Andromeda (Janaki Ranpura), and a hairy drag maiden named Elvis Lesley (Garrett Ferderber) who serenades us with "Sea of Love" while plunking away on a ukulele. Good fun, in other words—sort of a community ensemble comedy with distinctly dark undertones. It's after the intermission that things veer into the deep, dark space of the mind. Our five remaining contestants are relocated to a crowded tank and attended to by vampiric minders, all the while awaiting the judgment of Spider Lady (Lelis Brito), who spearheads some kind of unspecified exploitation network. Eugene and Eugenia, when not abetting their arachnid mistress, play high-stakes cards for chips that represent soul-like commodities, until much of the cast ends up trapped in a web while the remainder barter for the chance to be marketed and sold to a rapacious world. At least I think that's more or less what happened. Creator and director Kristi Ternes throws enough ideas at the wall here that at least several of them stick, and by the end things are either downright incomprehensible or pleasingly evocative, depending on your point of view. The second act strained my capacity to play along, but I've always been partial to the narcotic logic and eccentric sexiness of a good fever dream. The problem is that they rarely make much sense the morning after.