In the dark, dystopian world that young, British playwright Alistair McDowall creates, reality unexpectedly oozes into the science fiction thriller and then, just as suddenly leaches back out again.
This surrealistic play is a kind of mobius strip of a story. The non-linear plot pops back and forth between the present and the future. It kicks all logic deep into the murky shadows that envelope Joe Schermoly’s nightmarish scenic design, and reality turns into an M.C. Escher-like staircase to nowhere.
McDowall’s play begins in a car driven by a verbose man named Zeppo (the always excellent Peter Moore) who goes to great lengths to describe the plot of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to Ollie, his confused traveling companion.
Throughout his enthusiastic narration, as Zeppo devours a bag of McDonalds’ chicken nuggets, we learn that Ollie, played with empathy by Amber Sallis, is meeting with Zeppo because she’s desperate to find her twin sister who disappeared. Ollie hasn’t contacted the police because her sister, who may or may not actually exist, might’ve been involved in some shady dealings.
In the backseat of the car sits a creature who’s part octopus and part human. The other passengers don’t seem fazed by this monster, but keep handing it large, jewel-like objects to put in the container it’s holding.
One of the first things that audiences need to know is that the titular Pomona is actually a real place. It’s kind of a black hole in the middle of the city of Manchester, England where horrible, unspeakable things happen, and to which the people turn a blind eye. The playwright references this urban wasteland in his play, but uses Pomona as a metaphor for all the things in this world we choose to ignore.
Zeppo tells Ollie that he could research the contents of those McNuggets, if he wanted to but he declares that ignorance is bliss. He says that society functions on the premise that selective education is the best way to survive. Thus, Pomona represents and is the location where repulsive, scandalous occurrences take place, but we simply pretend that they don’t.
Young Charlie (the incredibly talented and likable Brandon Rivera) works as a security guard at Pomona, the only job he’s been able to swing, because of his shady background.
Charlie spends nights standing next to his older coworker, Moe (Nate Faust, in another riveting performance), watching the unmarked vehicles drive in and out of the underground cavern entrance
He asks no questions and goes virtually unnoticed. During his spare time, however, Charlie is an avid role-playing game aficionado. He’s even written his own Dungeons & Dragons scenario based on H.P. Lovecraft’s octopus-faced monster, Cthulhu.
Charlie invites Keaton (the mesmerizing Phoebe Moore), a strange, subdued young woman, to join him in his game. As he teaches her how to play, Keaton becomes more competent, and that skill that helps her gain confidence in her own mysterious life.
Soon we encounter a young woman who could possibly be Ollie’s missing twin. Consumed by debt, she’s about to begin a new job at a seedy brothel run by a tough-as-nails Jamila Tyler, as Gale.
Fay, a depressed, battered and abused prostitute, (brilliantly portrayed by Ashlyn Lozano) shows her the ropes but warns the girl against the evils of the business. Sadly, the girl doesn’t heed Fay’s warning and returns to the brothel badly beaten after working a second job doing backroom snuff films. Soon afterwards she mysteriously disappears, as do several of the other characters in this dark, twisted thriller.
Robin Witt who directed “Brilliant Adventures,” another science fiction-themed play by Alistair McDowall at Steep Theatre, once again does a skillful job of guiding and shaping this surrealistic production.
This is a world of shadows and violence accented by tiny sparks of light and a giant, bloodstained door. It’s as if a comic book has come to life, blending the real world with an imaginary universe.
Before the audience can become too comfy in the playwright’s flights of fantasy, Witt allows realism to come crashing down. This is an often brutal, frequently gory, sometimes humorous and very adult play that illustrates, as Zeppo says, “Everything bad is real.”
DETAILS: “Pomona” is at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn Ave., Chicago, through August 24, 2019. For tickets and other information call (866) 811-4111 or visit Steep Theatre.
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