"Don't Give That Beast a Name"
Randall Colburn and Bob Fisher combine their mutual chief obsessions — God and monsters — in "Don't Give That Beast a Name," which places the bare bones of Georg Buchner's unfinished 1837 masterpiece "Woyzeck" in the sort of sin-and-salvation Southern gothic setting Flannery O'Connor relished. That sounds like a bit much to bite off. But storefront adventures sometimes require a leap of faith into up-close excess that you won't find in more polite companies.
Colburn, whose gritty examinations of religious fervor and sexuality made it to the North Shore last winter when Writers' Theatre remounted "Hesperia," has the starker sensibility of the two, but his more earnest voice and co-author/director Fisher's pulp-noir-horror tastes actually work together better than might be expected. The two-act piece has a jumpy and episodic feel to it — which, in fairness, it shares with Buchner's way-before-its-time cinematic original. But a fluid ensemble commits to the sometimes-purple dialogue with relish, and there is a palpable sweetness underneath the clammy sense of doom.
Frank (Gabe Garza) is a backwoods crooner in love with the mysterious Marie (Erin Elizabeth Orr), who wears a red ribbon around her neck and is on the run from her seedy past, embodied by a mysterious Man in the Red Headlights (Erin Myers), who shows up at inauspicious moments in a red Satan-like mask. After Frank declines a record contract because the Grand Ole Opry suits won't include Marie onstage, he descends into a crisis of faith in himself and in his marriage that leads him to a malevolent snake-handling outfit. Meantime, Marie seeks solace with a guitar-slinging preacher, Pastor Drumm (Anthony Stamilio), whose vision of God's love is less apocalyptic than that of the reptile wranglers. (The congregation's sinister version of the classic hymn "I'll Fly Away" may slither into your nightmares.)
Garza, who has played a variety of goons and heavies in past Mammals shows, gets to take center stage as a sensitive man-child here, and the combination with the waiflike Orr's tougher-than-she-seems Marie is heavenly. "I can't say I made a good woman of her," Garza's smitten swain says. "I just saw the good woman already there." That search for the essential goodness and inner light provides a counterpoint to the darker impulses of the characters, and it's a search that the audience is literally pulled into at points.
Fisher and Colburn can't resist a few inside jokes — Tinkerbell (Sean Ewert) is the sort of grotesque one stumbles over frequently in O'Connor's work. But there is a lot of satisfying theatrical meat on this rough beast's bones.
Through Nov. 3, Zoo Studios, 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave.; $20 at 866-593-4614 or chicagomammals.com
"Hot 'n' Throbbing"
Paula Vogel's 1994 play also touches on desire and fate, but this portrait of domestic violence and sexual yearning is feeling a little bit creaky around the edges. Nonetheless, Interrobang Theatre Project gives it a sharp production under Jeffry Stanton's precisely calibrated direction.
Charlene (the magnetic Christina Hall) has left her abusive husband, Clyde (Matthew David Gellin), and is raising their two teen children, bookish Calvin (Andrew Goetten) and rebellious Leslie Ann (Stella Martin) on income from writing feminist erotic screenplays. When brutish Clyde breaks into the house one night, the tight control Charlene exercises over her screen characters (embodied by Griffin Sharps and Casey Wortman) clashes with her darker impulses.
Some of the story frankly strains credulity, and Clyde is a depressingly standard-issue redneck. A level of horror-film impatience takes over at times — you may want to yell "For God's sake, get out of the house already!" In fact, a couple of patrons did leave midshow the night I attended, loudly declaiming on their way out that "This isn't entertainment!" But then, that is one of Vogel's points — the lines between pleasure and danger, past and present are not always immediately visible to us. Despite some of the more cliched aspects of the script, this taut and hair-raising production marks the newish Interrobang as a company to watch.
Through Oct. 21, Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.; $25 at 773-338-2177 or interrobangtheatreproject.org