Dystopia can be a good place to demonstrate the kinder side of human nature. Now onstage at Brainspunk Theater’s home at Kensington’s Papermill Theater, Philip Ridley’s MERCURY FUR is shocking, violent, and uncomfortable to watch, but also weirdly heartwarming.
Ridley’s 2005 play depicts a London in the wake of civilization collapse. Brothers Eliot (Joshua McLucas) and Darren (Samuel Fineman) are scraping together a living selling psychosomatic butterflies and preparing a trash-strewn apartment for a party.
The guest list sounds ominous: a “party-piece”, “party guest”, and “Spinx”, who we’re told is liable to “cut off people’s eyelids” if he’s not satisfied with the spread. Other hints things may not go well—guns, knives, a crow bar, a meat hook—contribute to a steadily building tension. With each new character—first, a brain-fried neighbor (Tyler S. Elliott) and transgender costumer (John Schultz)—the tension threatens to bubble over.
Director Josh Hitchens and his controlled cast of young actors keep a well-tuned pace throughout the engrossing two hours. McLucas stands out in a role premiered by British actor Ben Whishaw, displaying some of that now-famous actor’s charm and depth, but almost every one seizes the play at some point; Geremy Webne-Behrman is terrifying as Spinx. Only the complicated fight choreography proves a rung too high for Brainspunk’s well-budgeted production.
The picture Ridley paints of the bleak dystopia beyond the walls of the run-down housing complex adds to the sense of foreboding doom. Society has collapsed. The museums have been looted, the zoo is “a place where they keep the dead animals”. The survivors escape by eating a cornucopia of mind-destroying butterflies. The drugs have all but erased memories of a time “before”, and each recollection—however hazy—is precious, but it seems all each character can remember is a terrible life-altering trauma.
As MERCURY FUR begins, Christopher King’s set is littered with cans, bags, chip packets; but the impression is that someone had dumped a trash bag over a stage, rather than that the garbage has accumulated in desperation and decay. Similarly, the details of Ridley’s dystopia don’t quite add up (London’s still a financial capital? There’re still cell phones and pineapple?), but that seems beside the point.
The world is unrecognizable from our own, but Ridley and Hitchens encourage us to draw our own parallels in the loss of past, escapism, depravity. And then, most importantly, in how we retain dignity and humanity even (or especially?) in the worst circumstances.
MERCURY FUR is the most shockingly affecting play I’ve seen on independent Philly stages since Luna Theater’s 2011 production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted (or, at least, since I saw the last show Brainspunk produced, Josh Hitchens’s one-man Jeffrey Dahmer). But like Blasted, Ridley’s play presents us with a blood-stained mirror to our own world. The reflection is horrible, but not without hope.
Not for the squeamish. [Brainspunk Theater at the Papermill, 2825 Ormes Street] July 23-August 8, 2015; brainspunktheater.com.