Review – Pomona – Orange Tree Theater

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Let’s be honest: I got interested in seeing Pomona at the Orange Tree Theater not because it’s a new play, but because in the poster there was someone dressed with a Cthulu mask on. I’ve been into Lovecraftian stuff since I was in college, and I’ve gotten more into it since Charles Stross integrated the mythos into his Laundry books (so much so I made my own knock off of it). Then when I found out it was also about role playing games (RPGs to the initiated, Dungeons and Dragons to the rest), I was feeling very strongly a trip to the distant wilds of Richmond was called for – but Stewart Pringle’s enthusiastic blurblings were what tipped me over into finding the most immediately open slot on my calendar and booking tickets. Yes, yes, I want to support the production of new works, but it does take something really special to support it in a location that can mean I spend the next day at work being totally exhausted.

Backstory out of the way, I’m going to go for an experiential rather than a narrative based review …

In the darkness, you are suddenly faced with two people: a man, explaining the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark; and a woman, listening to him, while handing large, twenty sided dice to a Cthulu-headed figure. The woman is looking for her sister, who has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Why is he telling her a story everyone must know? Why is he dressed in white underwear? Who has convinced her to come to him for help? Are they real? Is he going to hurt her? Is this actually a game?

The lights flash, chaos descends. A red haired woman briefly appears, trying to rip off the gag and wrist cuffs binding her. Two men, friends apparently, hurt each other terribly to save themselves from a worse fate. While the vignettes take place in the square pit in the middle of the theater, other people lurk on the edges. There is the feeling that everything that happens is being watched. A woman making a desperate phone call to tell someone (her sister?) to lock the doors and stay inside add to this feeling. Is she real? Is she part of a story someone else is telling? One person after another is frightened of a really horrible death that they believe to be unavoidable. And suddenly, like a scene from the Shining, the set is covered with buckets of blood that all trickle away down the drain in the middle. My God, what is going on?

The narrative bits seem to stretch out and more richly developed characters bob up like corpses in a river. One of the interactions is about Keaton, an autistic seeming young woman (Sarah Middleton), playing an RPG with Charlie (Sam Swann), who earlier had a hallucinatory scene where he explained his desire to mark an entire city with his bodily fluids. Why do he and the other security guard he works with think there is something strange going on where they are? Is it all a backstory build up for Charlie’s RPG? Is it somehow real?

As I was taken on this flickering, constantly shifting narrative, with sinister female criminals, worried sisters, a young woman running around a maze, big city prostitutes, and the constant miasma of evil, I gave up on trying to decide what was supposed to be real within the context of the play and just let the storylines wash over me and form the connections they wanted to form. I was impressed by how buried in their parts the actors were – I found myself wanting to reach out and comfort the red haired woman (Rebecca Humphries) when she was being particularly terrorized, yet I also found her cold blooded rage in a proximate scene had me frightened about what would happen next. I never guessed who the ultimate villain would be, or what the terror that lurks beneath would wind up being – in some ways it was very much modern Grand Guignol but with less blood – because you don’t need lots of blood to destroy people. You just need to control them. Pomonoa wonderfully created the atmosphere of terror standing just behind you: because ultimately, the most frightening thing out there isn’t some alien creature: it’s other people.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 19, 2014. It continues through December 13th.)

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