In the early 1990s, Phillip Ridley did not have an easy time finding a theater willing to premiere his play, “The Pitchfork Disney.” When The Bush Theatre of London finally gave in, Ridley’s sprawling, ideological behemoth would end up being the gateway drug into the “in-yer-face” British theatre movement and influence a generation of provocateurs. Born from a desperate need to break away from the stuffiness of modern English theatre, the movement aimed to shove the audience’s nose into the vile and vicious. “In-yer-face” highlighted the more gruesome side of human nature which, as Ridley’s ringmaster Cosmo Disney so blithely states, is rich with schadenfreude. In Disney’s eyes, human beings are hypocrites bent on professing our innocence while delighting in the profane. The play enjoyed its D.C. debut at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 1995 but has not returned to the city since. Red Rat’s production, directed by the incomparable Jack Rento, succeeds in capturing the raw spirit of Ridley’s masterpiece and in a tight 90 minutes, shows us what it feels like to look our nightmares full in the face.
…strikingly talented group of young artists.
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, located in Southeast D.C., is an intimate black box in which Red Rat has cleverly configured the living room of the agoraphobic twins, Presley and Haley Stray. The audience is pressed right up against the action, creating the distinct feeling that we are peering through the glass into a living exhibit. Jack Rento (who also plays Presley Stray) and Em Whitworth as Haley Stray, are already onstage as the audience filters in. Rento is staring, dead eyed, through the Stray’s living room window (facing away from the audience) and Whitworth is in repose on her favorite worn armchair. Lighting designer Alexis Sheeks has created some ingenious lighting moments, many of which were profound examples of purposeful lighting. A prime example is the window lighting, which fully lights Rento’s face and allows the audience to enjoy Rento’s acting chops through his reflection in the living room window, when he is facing away from us. It is imperative that it is clear when Presley wants to interact with Haley and when he wishes he was alone—and the window helps achieve that. Through theatrical magic, Sheeks and Rento were able to create a technical trick that serves the plot. This sort of collaboration is what makes the best theatre.
As they sat in stillness, both actors created the startling effect of a wax museum. One gets the sense that they might spring into action at any moment. Even though they haven’t yet plunged into the first scene, tension can already be cut with a knife. Rento and Whitworth carry that electricity with them throughout the entire play. Technically, and as scene partners, both actors are seriously first rate. Their rapport and body language tell us all we need to know about their co-dependency. We get the distinct feeling that their current reality has an expiration date. That date comes in the form of Cosmo Disney, played by Stephen Kime. Cosmo is a larger-than-life harbinger of all things foul and lights up the room with his wonderful brand of psychopathy. When Cosmo invades Presley and Haley’s solitude, he proceeds to thrust Presley into a journey through his subconscious and fractured childhood. Cosmo and his associate, Pitchfork Cavalier (James Finley), are showmen, both of whom perform shocking acts of depravity for a paying audience. Presley is forced to decide what’s important to him— really, the decision is made for him.
“The Pitchfork Disney” is a hell of a script. It is extremely cruel to its characters, merges metaphor and fact, and quite literally vomits on its audience. Red Rat Theater Company knew what they were getting into when they picked this script. Ridley is unforgiving in his prose, his three-page monologues, and the absolutely baffling tasks he asks of his actors (Whitworth had to essentially sleep for three quarters of the play). Red Rat could not have chosen a better play for this strikingly talented group of young artists. They are armed to the teeth with thoughtfulness, as well as technical talent. Red Rat is exactly what the D.C. theatre community needs right now, and “The Pitchfork Disney” is a show you’ll want to see again and again.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: The Pitchfork Disney is appropriate for audiences ages 18+. Contains mature content and themes, including discussions of homophobia, physical and emotional abuse, murder, drug use, and sexual assault.
“The Pitchfork Disney” runs through August 19, 2023 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street, Southeast Washington D.C., 20003. For tickets and more information, call The Box Office at (202) 547-6839 or go online.