The bed, the table, the pew. This is the world of Maxine Dillon’s ’17 “Strange Flesh,” separated into distinct realms by three onstage structures composed of white wooden planks. In this place, there is an air of sterility. When the rare moment of tenderness appears, it sharply contrasts with the barren background, both the white planks and stringent milieu. Here, intimacy is perilous but thrilling, made even more passionate by its existence in a bleak framework.
Although titled “Strange Flesh,” the play is just as much about our skin. It examines how we humans hide the truths of our bodies under layered falsities to survive — and what happens when you unveil the unadulterated marrow beneath the surface. Even the theater itself has been stripped of its skin to reveal its bones: the rigging, the pipes, the lights. Onstage, adults and adolescent characters mask their sexuality by adhering to ideology, appearing to abide by Christian social mores. The only beings somewhat free from societal constraint are the two children, Benjamin and Simon Bradshaw, aptly dressed in all white to convey their innocence.
The play follows the residents of a New Haven puritan town in the winter of 1674. Eleanor Bradshaw, the daughter of the recently widowed Rebecca Bradshaw, begins behaving strangely after bearing witness to a shocking event. The situation grows to involve local townspeople like William Forester and Reverend Matthews, and at the center of it all is a scandal.
While the play utilizes standard theatrical archetypes, it avoids being trite. “Strange Flesh” is the lovechild of “The Crucible” and “The Twilight Zone”: its novelty comes from the incorporation of surrealist elements within a period context.
The music, composed by Emil Ernström ’19, is all at once beautiful and unnerving. Many of the instrumental pieces resemble the sound of a violinist playing in the foyer of an abandoned mansion, the sound expanding to fill the room, forcing you to realize the enormity of the vacant space. Subtle but omnipresent, the faintly disturbing tone of the music allows the audience to enter the psyche of the play’s unnerved characters, to feel the incessantly plaguing weight of their shame.
The lighting too, conveys an eerie sense of unease. During transitions, five single lights shine directly downward, resembling the feeling of sitting in an empty confessional booth. The effect forces the audience to be aware of the relative emptiness of the space, conveying the lonely inner workings of the people on display. Occasionally, the giant hanging cross is the single illuminated presence in the darkened room: this is the symbol that governs the internal and external lives of the men and women onstage.
Period pieces performed in a nonprofessional setting (and even sometimes, a professional one) are often coupled with bland acting performances. However, Gian-Paul Bergeron ’17 delivers the role of Reverend Williams with an earnest compassion and commanding yet humble presence, making his tonal switch in the latter half of the play wonderfully surprising. The source of lightness in an otherwise heavy play was Stefani Kuo’s ’17 Rebecca Bradshaw, who establishes the vibrancy of the character through her occasional humorous, frank tone. As William Forester, Will Nixon ’19 conveys the essence of a naïve, fretful schoolboy in his physicality: as he sat, his shoulders tensed, the balls of his feet elevated, and his ankles crooked inward.
Perhaps the strongest moment of the play is the split screen staging of Reverend Matthews kissing Rebecca as William Forester chokes his daughter Eleanor in the bedroom. The two pairs mirror each other’s movements: a spin, a grab, a moment of intensity. Both acts are forbidden in this society, yet one comes from desire and the other from force. However, this scene conveys that, in this world, sexuality may as well be viewed as another form of violence.
Another notable scene occurs when Eleanor, played by Sita Strother ’20, tells her mother Rebecca that’s she’s begun to bleed, explaining how she feels that she’s been shamed by God. But what else is a young girl to believe when her environment shuns bodily truths? If queerness and sexuality are shunned, why wouldn’t the blood coming from her vagina be a sign of shame? However, Rebecca assures Eleanor that this process is normal, and she begins to wash the blood from her daughter’s body, a moment of literal and emotional nakedness capturing the arbitrariness of morality in a society governed by humans.
We live in a country in which our vice president previously signed an Indiana bill that would, in essence, permit bigotry in the name of religion. In such a political climate, Dillon’s play examines “how unspoken things become unspeakable” when the laws of man become the laws of God.