Review: ‘I Killed My Mother’ at Spooky Action Theater

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Andras Viskey’s I Killed My Mother, now in production at Spooky Action Theater, is a challenging bit of business. Its wordless opening is several minutes of wandering by various members of the company – some singly, some in pairs, some with the hint of a purpose, some walking into walls they weren’t expecting to find in their way. It’s challenging, but gorgeous and transfixing; it’s confounding, and doesn’t offer any suggestion or map for where we’re about to find ourselves.

Erica Chamblee, Kevin E. Thorne II, Karoline Troger, and Domonique Gay. Photo by Bryanda Minix.

Which is Romania, but a spare, impressionistic version of that country. And we meet Bernadette (Erica Chamblee), a bi-racial young Gypsy woman (on her mother’s side; some soft shade of vanilla on her father’s) who is learning that people, through a specific ritual, taught to her by her friend and fellow orphanage inmate, Clip (Kevin Thorne), can be turned to stone. You need only turn your back on your target, scream out the word “Never!” (tongue-placement, explained carefully by Clip, is important), and it’s done. When you turn back around, whomever had been troubling you is now a stone.

Bernadette’s mother had abandoned her when she was young, and her story unfolds like a post-modern Oliver Twist. Her early orphanage days – punctuated by brief moments of freedom when she’s a necessary prop for a woman named Clara (Karoline Huber), who uses Bernadette, in part, to win the affections of an Australian, played by Mediombo Singo Fofana, called only “The Light Measurer” – paint a despairing picture of abandonment. It’s in part why Clip knows this ritual for turning enemies to stone; one needs any protection one can get.

Erica Chamblee and Kevin E. Thorne II.Photo by Bryanda Minix.

As we watch Bernadette grow from a young girl into a young woman, we also watch her begin to put the story of her life into some kind of order. This happened, then this, which led to… Bernadette holds the mother who abandoned her (Dominique Gay) accountable for all the ills that followed, and, with her powerful new ability – regardless of whether it’s only a metaphor or it’s literal – she wants a reckoning of some kind. This will set everything back on the right course. And also, it won’t.

This is an extraordinary group of actors, each committing wholeheartedly to the piece performed, and to each other. Chamblee’s Bernadette is fierce and frightening, but also deeply relatable in her drive to heal herself and her past. Thorne, as Clip, brings a sinewy muscular quality, and his scenes with Bernadette are incredibly affecting and powerful.

Director/Producer Natalia Gleason Nagy has an assured handle on all of this action, but not in a way that feels oppressive. Scenes fold and unfold as seemingly as they want – but that kind of organic energy requires a director and company willing to risk vulnerability, trust, and not always understanding the larger moments, for effective moments of grace. The play, again, isn’t a straightforward night at the theater. It’s an astonishing mix of theater, modern dance, Philip Glassian minimalism, and stark painful beauty.

“Gypsy Madonna.” Image by Szentandrassy Istvan.

Salvador Fawkes and Erica Chamblee developed the choreography for Nagy’s production, and it is gorgeous and necessary, filling Zsuzanna Magony’s spare white set with moments of transcendent loveliness or kinetic, frantic energy. (Magony is also costume designer.) Integral, too, is Jesse Marciniak’s sound design and Bruce Wiljanen’s careful attention to how necessary light is in a play not eager to explain itself easily to the audience.

I Killed My Mother is a play you may want to see at least twice. The first time, to let the beauty and pain in Visky’s script wash over you; the second time, to build on what you saw prior. It’s risky, violent, heartbreaking, and utterly honest. This wonder-filled production is not to be missed.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 20-minute intermission.

I Killed My Mother plays through September 30, 2017, at Spooky Action Theater – 1810 16th St NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (800) 838-3006, or purchase them online.

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