There’s something profoundly disturbing in the total nonchalance of a person undergoing the same tests as a rabbit in a cosmetic-testing facility.
Such is the premise of Category E, a new play penned by local playwright Belinda Cornish and presented by the Maggie Tree. It’s also the show that gets the distinction of being the very last to grace the stage of the Varscona before renovations on the space begin later this month.
It’s certainly a memorable show to go out on, not least because of the stark white, clinical set designed by T Erin Gruber. We spend the duration of the show in a forced-perspective room, two cots angled on either side of a path that leads up to a door, through which each of the cell’s three occupants are alternately called. Upon their return, they are accompanied by grotesque eye wounds or uncontrollable skin itches.
The script’s plot is circular: the people trapped in this room are subject to a host of tortuous experiments, contextualized here by the occasional projection of a commercial for various products (dog food, diapers, mascara) on the ceiling. Their presence in the lab is never explained, though we do learn that they aren’t volunteers; neither is there any hope or even discussion of escape or an end to their ordeal, other than the obvious. When that arrives for one of the three characters, it’s a grisly escalation that was chillingly telegraphed from the outset.
The characters are painted with bold lines and brought to powerful life by a trio of capable performers. Filigree (Jenna Dykes-Busby) is frenetic and sociopathic for her lack of empathy, an immediate threat almost as sinister as the unseen forces behind the cell door. Newcomer Millet (Miranda Allen) is a perpetual optimist with a vivacity of spirit that’s wincing to see caged. Corcoran (Louise Lambert) is the veteran who has been there the longest, rolling around in a wheelchair and offering ambiguous hints as she attempts to keep the peace between the other two.
Category E is an unforgiving personification of animal testing and all its attendant casual cruelties, though it’s not on a crusade to stimulate audiences to start picketing labs afterwards, nor is it an act of pure catharsis. What you ultimately take from the play is largely up to your own sensibilities, but it’s infused with too much vivid reality to be outright dismissed as pure fiction.
Until Sat, Apr 18 (7:30 pm; 2 pm Saturday matinee)
Directed by Nancy McAlear
Varscona Theatre, $15 – $20