One of the least-horrific stories in Philip Ridley's atrocity-laden Mercury Furdeals with the Greek myth of the Minotaur. After hearing the tale of the slaying of the half-bull, half-human lord of the labyrinth, one of the play's ubiquitous drug-addled teen-agers wants to know: Was the creature's head man or animal?
The kid is trying to determine innocence or guilt. If the head were bullish, he suggests, the Minotaur deserved death, since its beastly nature dominated. But if the head were human, the monster was no monster—but instead merely a man who could be forgiven for possessing beastly tendencies.
Mercury Fur begs a similar question about itself: how much humanity does it possess, and is there enough to justify its relentless litany of nightmares?
Even by the Rude Guerrilla's Theatre Company's uncompromisingly visceral sensibilities, Mercury Furis dark, brutal and twisted. A story about kids shooting caged monkeys is downright innocuous next to that of a young boy in a supermarket witnessing his mother's decapitation and sister's gang-rape . . . or a father taking a hammer to his wife or children . . . or what a hallucinated Jacqueline Kennedy does when she feels her dead husband's brain matter oozing between her thighs—all of which pales before the part of the play that is trulyrevolting: the on-stage mutilation of a real, live 10-year-old child.
Yet ask Ridley about the gruesome images and the nihilistic pallor that hovers over every character, and the British-born writer (whose work includes the screenplay for the 1990 film The Krays) talks about love.
"I think of Mercury Fur almost as a romance," Ridley replies via e-mail from England, where he is immersed in his latest play. "The play is blazingly optimistic. It is about the survival of love. In the light of what we're seeing on our news every day it's almost Utopian."
This almost-Utopia visualizes a not-too-distant America where chaos reigns and most everyone under the age of 25 seems addicted to a strange drug called butterflies. It begins with two brothers breaking into a dilapidated apartment searching for a place to film a torture, and ends with the U.S. government bombing its own people. Calling this a Utopia seems as far-fetched as describing the transport of German Jews to concentration camps as a state-paid vacation.
Through all the horror, however, Mercury Fur poses an alternative to despair and destruction—and it is here that Ridley's claim of optimism just might earn a little credibility. If a heart does beat in this play, it seems infused by Ridley's desire to show a different route for a post-MTV generation that he sees as out of hope, and increasingly out of options.
"I am angry and distressed for a whole generation of young people who seem to be fueled by apathy," Ridley writes in his e-mail. "Who have no empathy. Who are too disconnected to even be angry. Who have no sense of history. Who revel in ignorance. Who delight in oblivion. Who find fulfillment in being totally unengaged. Mercury Furis a scream in the face of this. It is a shriek of defiance against the approaching abyss."
Dave Barton, who is directing the Rude Guerilla presentation of the play, appreciates the dilemma that Ridley is trying to confront.
"For me the play asks tough ethical questions," says Barton, who is an OCWeekly contributor. "Under horrifying circumstances—think modern-day Baghdad transplanted to Orange County, for example—do we go The Lord of the Fliesroute or do we eventually stop and say 'No more?' What if your family or loved ones needed to be protected and it required you to do something horrible? Would you do it? Or would you let your family suffer?"
As coarse and savage as its words and events, the language of Mercury Fur has a perverse sort of beauty.Rarely do characters so far outside the margins of conventional society sound so lyrical, even when their words are used as weapons of destruction. Consider this interestingly worded insult: "You've been acting like a kitten after a twirl in the microwave all afternoon, and this microwaved feline behavior is eating up time faster than a starving piranha on a freshly-aborted fetus. Do I make myself fucking clear?"
The play is also wickedly funny, quite an achievement in one so disturbing. When a slightly less-than-college-educated character recounts the history of the 20th century, it comes out a jumbled mess in which John F. Kennedy is married to Marilyn Monroe and bombards Germany with napalm and nukes after Hitler threatens to sodomize her.
The language and the humor suggest that Ridley is concerned with more than shocking or disgusting his audience. He confirms that suspicion.
"W.H. Auden wrote, 'We must love each other or die,'" Ridley writes in his e-mail. "In many ways, that's exactly what (the play) is saying. We must tell stories of love or we will forget how to love. Love is a ritual than can be forgotten, like all others."
MERCURY FUR, AT RUDE GUERILLA THEATER, 200 N. BROADWAY, SANTA ANA, (714) 547-4688; WWW.RUDEGUERILLA.ORG. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 2 P.M.; ALSO THURS., MAR. 15, 8 P.M. THROUGH MAR. 24. $10-$18.