This summer, Theatre Pro Rata proved that the abandoned Hollywood Theater, an old movie house in Northeast, made an intriguing home for the right kind of show with its production of Waiting for Godot. Now, Savage Umbrella ramps that up nearly to the breaking point with The Ravagers, an immersive and haunting adaptation of Aeschylus' tragedies about 50 sisters ordered to kill their husbands on their wedding night. It's a nearly three-hour descent into hell that is aided by the stark, decaying setting and a script, production, and design that give the audience as little chance to escape the situation as the characters in the play.
The work is steeped in the myths of ancient Greece, centered on the 50 daughters of Danaus, who has isolated his family from the world. Like a cult leader, Danaus dominates them, indoctrinating them on the beauty of their own crumbling home and the need to worship him above everything else. There are chinks in the armor, however, mainly from favorite Hypermnestra, who is able to communicate with the outside world through a crack in the wall.
On the other side of that crack is Lynceus, one of the 50 sons of Danaus' brother, Aegyptus. Long ago, it was decided that their children would marry, again uniting the two families. Afraid of losing control—and let's face it, more than a bit mad—Danaus orders his daughters to kill the bridegrooms. That plays out at the beginning of the second act, a horrifying promenade in the lobby that brings the audience up close and personal with nine of the murders. The first three are played out simultaneously, with parts of the crowd moving from display to display, able to hear the other ones happen while watching the third. The layers build up in each repeat, as we can see what we half-heard before but are still powerless to stop the slaughter.
2815 Johnson St. NE, Minneapolis
Minneapolis, MN 55418
Region: Northeast Minneapolis
Savage Umbrella at the Hollywood Theater
2815 Johnston St. NE, Minneapolis
Through November 19; www.savageumbrella.org
The carnage ends with six more murders in the lobby area, which helps to define the murderous wives and their soon-to-be-dead husbands. We see them all as what they are here—young people on the cusp of maturity, one group dreaming of new life united with their brides, the others fighting but succumbing to years of brainwashing and doing their father's bidding. The coup de grace? As the audience is led back into the house, we are forced to walk amid the corpses, sealing the horror of what we have just seen.
The ritualized nature of the piece, created by company members Blake E. Bolan (who also directs) and Laura Leffler-McCabe and further developed by the cast, makes it hard to single out performances, especially among the chorus of daughters and sons (most of whom are doubled in the beginning, playing additional daughters during the first part of Act One). As Danaus, Scott Keely has the right mix of warmth and menace, which comes through in every aspect of his performance, right down to his eyes. On Saturday night, Bob Hammel's Aegyptus was hampered by a case of laryngitis, forcing the actor to focus mainly on being heard. (The concrete walls of the theater made for a stark environment but did make the dialogue sometimes hard to hear.)
Leffler-McCabe takes us through Hypermnestra's journey from a child and adult under the spell of her father to an independent soul ready to defy his orders for her love of Lynceus, who ends up on her marriage bed. Carl Atiya Swanson takes us through a similar journey as Lynceus, though this is played out mainly as the two exchange messages through the wall. We feel the character's warmth from the beginning, which never leaves even when he's faced with the massive tragedy in Danaus' house.
The space and design are as much stars here as the actors. Stark lighting and bare concrete start to create the oppressive atmosphere, and the effect is intensified by Eliott Durko Lynch's sound design, which uses a lot of atonal, experimental music merged with distorted natural sounds. (Though again, it does occasionally make it hard to hear the actors.) Sonya Berlovitz does her usual expert work, crafting costumes of stark white with hints of yellow and dust for the Daniads and swipes of blue for the Aegyptians.
The nontraditional way the show is built—it starts with the repeated daily ritual of the daughters, with slight variations along the way, for example—threatens tedium, but the overwhelming nature of the whole show makes that just a way to let us into spiraling darkness. By the time the doomed wedding feast comes near the end of Act One, we're in the world with the characters, to be let out only after the curtain call.