Powerfully Horrific

Mercury Fur is a long, painfully rewarding vision

A child is tortured—mutilated—in the climactic moments of Mercury Fur, the Philip Ridley play being presented in its American debut by the Rude Guerilla Theater Company. In fact, lots of people endure slow, very painful deaths.

Does that kind of cruelty bother you? It probably should. Does it surprise you? It probably shouldn't. Rather suddenly, torture has become a well-known fact of our lives—and a staple of our entertainment. The change seems to have occurred since Sept. 11, 2001. According to a February article in the New Yorker, fewer than four acts of torture were portrayed every year on prime-time television before 9-11. Since then, the average is more than 100.

Rude Guerrilla's production doesn't soft-pedal Ridley's white-knuckle vision of an America plunged into political and moral anarchy. But with everyone from 24's Jack Bauer to our soldiers making their victims scream, what makes the twisting and shouting in Mercury Fur so powerfully horrific?

For starters, these victims suffer for only one crime—being alive, and being ensnared in the sick fantasy of a civil servant who yearns to pay for the privilege of murder. Even worse, these victims—the characters and the actors who portray them—aren't even old enough to vote; one is 16, another is a third grader. Most actors four times their ages haven't been asked to travel to darker places than these two kids.

Mercury Fur is a dark and sordid work, albeit one punctuated by great dialogue and moments of unbelievably audacious humor. Rude Guerrilla's unflinching production is impressive, even for a company that has never shied away from the uncomfortable and unseemly. Is all the verbal and physical brutality necessary? Probably not. Ridley could have handled the rape, torture and murder more artfully, craftily or subtly. Then again, those words aren't commonly associated with violence, and Ridley's play seems designed in part to strip from barbaric acts the hypocritical veneer of civilized discourse. Mission accomplished, by Ridley and director Dave Barton's uncompromisingly honest production.

But is it worth seeing? Well, maybe not if you hate sitting in a theater for more than two hours straight. An intermission would be nice. Breaking Mercury Fur into two parts might also help correct this show's biggest flaw: a lack of rising tension. That isn't helped by Barton's most conspicuous stylistic choice: stopping the flow of action by focusing lights on characters delivering revealing monologues. The effect makes these graphically lurid stories feel more like Storytime With Uncle Remus featuring Charlie Manson. The monologues serve as intrusions rather than steps toward a harrowing climax.

Still, this is a solid effort, with excellent physical combat and lively performances by a stellar ensemble cast. Justin Radford's sublimely understated Darren deserves special mention. Also, Robert Dean Nunez's Party Guy nearly steals the show with his late entrance as a corrupt civil servant who somehow manages, in the blink of a rabbit's eye, to turn frat-boy enthusiasm into convincingly creepy Hannibal Lecter perversion.

Tough, honest, visceral, and grueling on both the soul and buttocks, this is a play and a production not for the faint of heart. There is only one company in this county with the balls to stage this play; and there's only one company with the heart to get it as right as Rude Guerilla does.