Katya Roelse is magnificent as the Skriker, but much of the production is incomprehensible.

The Skriker

Slipstitch Productions, New Arts Salon, 213 Arch St., 552-8175, through Nov. 1

With headlines every day about young mothers who smother their infants in dufflebags, starve them to death in the basement, or try to flush them down the toilet at the senior prom, the subject of The Skriker is no laughing matter. Nor (for the most part) is it treated as such in a striking pick-up production currently playing in a tiny art gallery on Arch Street.

In Caryl Churchill's play, the world is still populated by fairies, shape-shifting malevolent forces who replace human babies with changelings, and seduce us into destroying our own children by mistake. Whether these fairies represent a distinct cosmology, a metaphor for human psychosis, or a theatrical means of representing these psychoses, is moot: whether you place your baby in the oven because you think it's a changeling or because you're depressed, the result is still, inevitably, a dead baby.

One of the stories Churchill tells is of a pair of housemates: Josie (Amanda Schoonover), institutionalized after murdering her infant; and Lily (Polly Joan Garcia), pregnant with her own. Lily is being pursued by a Skriker (Katya Roelse), a malevolent fairy who continues to haunt Josie, and who appears to the two in a variety of forms: as a nurse in the asylum, a lunatic street person, a child in the park, an old schoolfriend, Lily's own mother, a seductive stranger, and at one point even as a sofa.

The Skriker insinuates herself into Lily's confidence through charms and through pure terror; but her most effective strategy is her ability to grant wishes, including Lily's desperate wish that the babbling paranoiac Josie be restored to sanity. That wish is short-lived, not because the Skriker reneges on her promise, but because of the effect that this sudden sanity has on Josie: any form of possession, self-deception or murderous insanity proves to be preferable to the agonizing spectacle of Josie's brief moment of lucid self-knowledge.

But this is only one of several stories that Churchill tells in the play. The others - British folktales about Skelkies, Brownies, magical Black Dogs and traditional figures such as Yallerybrown, Girl with Telescope, Rawheadandbloodybones and The Man With Bucket - are told principally through mime and dance.

Read your program notes carefully before the 90-minute intermissionless play begins, for these episodes are completely incomprehensible in Jackson Gay's production. The space is simply too small, the burbling trumpet and saxophone music (by Aaron Meicht) too funky, and the choreography too perfunctory for these sequences to have any real effect; and the enormous cast of actors (the director's classmates at the University of the Arts), almost outnumbering the audience, look as though they've accidentally boogied in through the wrong door from an undergraduate Halloween Ball in the next building.

Still, Katya Roelse is magnificent as the Skriker, from her first appearance in a slinky cocktail dress, spouting a deliciously digressive free-associative cliché-laced monologue, through her subsequent appearances in a wide range of costumes, accents and upholstery, to her concluding triumph - a triumph which, after all those random choreographical witches-sabbath episodes, I didn't begin to understand.

-Cary M. Mazer