Mice in the basement.
Does that make you squirm? Good. That’s a hint of what Schaeffer Nelson’s Mice intends you to feel.
The new play at Ensemble Studio Theatre blithely violates taboos and sensibilities, unsettling us on a visceral level and upending “natural orders” we take for granted.
We start with two women being held prisoner by a mouse in the basement. But to say any more about the story would be to give away too much. So let’s look at performances.
The two women are Sharmila Devar (as Ayushi) and Heather Robinson (as Grace). Each portrays a woman in extremis. Devar crafts a smart, feisty realist — but tips her cards enough that we can feel an intriguing backstory behind the persona. Robinson begins by coming apart, a hapless victim who’s hard to like — then takes us slowly into her hidden depths.
The mouse is Kevin Comartin. Like a singer who’s good enough to sing badly, he operates a puppet with enthusiastic imperfection, as his character would. But he handles his character’s shifts and revelations with quiet, believable skill.
The designers also deserve a word. Amanda Knehans (set) and Ellen Monocroussos (lights), award-winning heavy hitters, give us a claustrophobic world that feels too dirty to touch, with lights pulsing and fading to guide us through the nightmare. Michael Mullin (costumes) and Mike Mahaffey (fight master), equally experienced and honored, create contributions so spot-on they’re almost invisible (except, of course, the puppet, a gruesomely comic chef d’oeuvre). And David Boman (sound) invites us onto an eerie ride and then orchestrates the jangling journey.
Roderick Menzies’ direction also impresses by being unobtrusive. He manages the considerable challenge of two characters held in chains for most of the play (and adds a nice touch when one, after she’s freed, remains rooted as if unused to liberty).
Finally, we come to the playwright. Nelson’s script is strongest for what it leaves unspoken, in the subtext. Both women are pastors’ wives, for example, and religion and church life are much discussed. But the way the captor’s delusions parody faith, or the way he binds the women to him by feeding them a perverted communion, are not remarked on. Memory’s central to the story, and the dank cellar suggests the deep unconscious where dark memories hide; but this, too, remains unspoken.
Most notably, the play’s central conceit — women imprisoned by a mouse — stirs all kinds of echoes. Among them are the adjective “mousy,” often applied to pastors’ wives; the similarly used sobriquet “church mouse”; and the old saw, “Are you a man or a mouse?” The play (and its title) force the question, yet these responses (and all others) are left untouched, for us to come up with on our own.
It’s disappointing, then, when things do obtrude into the text. The word “Evangelicals,” for instance, is used only once; but it’s unnecessarily specific, and evokes political conflicts irrelevant to the play. “Christians” would do just fine, and keep us in the story. Similarly, while the name “Grace” is allowed to do its work subliminally, Ayushi tells us to say hers “I-you-she” — a bit of needless instruction, as we’ve just heard her say it. This undercuts a clever name choice like a bad comedian explaining a joke.
I find the ending likewise overdone. There’s no need to tell us what decision Grace makes; leaving it unmade would preserve the ambiguity the play has been so carefully building. Uncertainty would strengthen the importance of her choice — and the play. Closing off the options just deflates her, the moment, and the story.
Overall, this is a fine production of a promising play. Which exactly suits Ensemble Studio’s mission — to find and develop new works and new writers. EST/LA brings together talents any playwright would die for. And Nelson clearly has the skill needed to polish Mice into the brisk, disturbing comic drama it nearly is.
Mice, by Schaeffer Nelson, directed by Roderick Menzies.
Presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/Los Angeles, at Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
through Nov. 5th.
Ensemble Studio Theatre has a mission —