Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
Darkness holds dominion in The Muse Collective’s ‘Pistrix.’ Tiny flashlight, ghostly murmurs and grotesque wooden dolls are brought insidiously to bear in this Tragi-Gothic shadow waltz. Like all standard Artaudian fare, the play begins in a mental institution. Raving Italian Toymaker Ilario reflects on the circumstances that uncoiled his mind. Ilario lost his son when a natural disaster (possibly caused by the mythological sea monster ‘Pistrix’) devastated his small turn-of-the-century village. Ilario’s reluctance to sell his home puts him on a collision course with his community. Though admirably ambitious and stimulatingly realized, ‘Pistrix’ falls prey to a lamentably overwrought script and repetitive staging.
The most striking element of ‘Pistrix’ is the direction of Michael Alvarez and choreography of Sidney Eric Wright. With minimal lighting and an athletic ensemble, they deliver an onslaught of spooky, inspired sequences. Notably, a joyous, laughing crowd devolves into wickedly demonic cackling when Ilaro is told his wife has died in childbirth. Sadly, like looking at a bright light too long, the visceral staging wears out its welcome and creates an unsatisfied urge for something new. The costumes are charmingly reminiscent of Danse Macabre, but the lengthy getups interfere with the more realistic moments, and the conspicuous moral color-coding (black equals bad, white equals good, stripes equal conflicted) are a bit nail-on-the-head.
But the reason ‘Pistrix’ won’t soar is the script. Annie R. Such’s dialogue is overwritten and taciturn, sounding more akin to a translation than a contemporary english speaker. Far too much time is invested in the minutia of Ilario’s money problems, so much so the play almost comically boomerangs between Gothic hysteria and Ibsonian rent drama. Although the tension mounts between Ilario and his community as he refuses to sell his land, there is very little development between the characters in favor of reflection and exposition. The long-winded nature of the script leads to lengthy, uninteresting intervals between visual events.
Lead actor Bobby Mittelstadt is severely miscast as Ilario. Mittelstadt seems more suited to play a heartthrob than an old demented toymaker. He sweats and shrieks his way through the role as best he can, but does very little to accrue sympathy or understanding. Heather Shisler and Alli Urbanik deliver the most gripping performances as Ilario’s best friend and the town’s mother superior. Shisler shines as a woman who, having lost her husband and children in the disaster, feels a certain kinship with Ilario despite his mental state. Urbanik delivers a deeply conflicted woman torn between God and her commitments as a secular leader. Yet both women are woefully underused in favor of Mittelstadt damaging his throat with hysterical hollering.
I love a good Goth jubilee, and I really wanted to like ‘Pistrix’ a tad more. That said, The Muse Collective proves an intrepid, sanguine ensemble. You can bet I’ll be watching them evolve with great interest.