The surface style is one part Addams Family and one part The Nightmare Before Christmas. But the real nature of things gradually, organically emerges in a grotesque third style: much darker and (thanks to leading man R. Travis Estes) more sincerely frightening. That third style is probably hidden in plain sight all along, as town merchant Anton Schill (Estes) reminisces with the wealthy Clara about their childhood romance, and a terrible youthful crime is finally recalled. "You turned me into a whore," she says, "and (now) I have made the world my brothel."
Wild hair and wilder make-up (both designed by Sarah Orloski) remain eye-popping throughout, and the costumes (by Alexandra Scibetta Quigley) are a Grimm's fairy tale of ridiculously shaped blacks and browns and grays. But the dour color scheme is enlivened, not just by Ms. Layton's retina-scorching scarlet travelling clothes, but by the whole town's sudden, suspicious acquisition of new shoes in anticipation of coming blood-money. We bask in a thrilling irony, realizing that the townspeople suddenly want to buy the finest food, drink and tobacco, all on creditfrom the man who must die to make them all rich. And then there's director Bell's delicious physicality of it all, full of brash and quizzical comedy, and ridiculous, cartoonish certainties. Thoroughly regimented in their displays of adulation for Clara, the fate of her childhood beau is still somehow in doubt, even with that robotic unity and a huge amount of money on the table. And Mr. Estes' sense of growing disbelief becomes the underpinning that eventually upstages every smirking duplicity around him.
As haunted and hunted as Mr. Estes is, Ms. Layton (his real-life wife) is haughty and distantly bitter, as her long calculation of revenge finally "clicks" into place. And as her plan comes to fruition, she sits above the town in silent judgment, with that "thousand mile stare" that suggests a life-time of plotting on her part, in spite of the most harrowing (and glamorous) brushes with death along the way.
Jan Niehoff is equally outstanding as the town's Burgomaster, slippery and effusive and matter-of-fact, as it suits her, to collect Clara's purse. Kevin Boehm is great as Clara's truculent, preening fiancÚ, and Shane P. Mullen shows unexpected absurdist flair as the policeman who makes Schill's protection impossible. The clever, absurdist comedy is almost non-stop, though Melissa Harris and Sarajane Alverson make impassioned pleas for a peaceful reconciliation in a gleaming show of altruism that pierces the darkness of the story.
A complex, highly choreographed endeavor, with dozens of tricky little light and sound cues, Stray Dog's production goes right through the roof in terms of quality and intellect and the sheer audacity of its wit and artistic vision. Running time is nearly three hours, including two intermissions, but it really flies by.
Translated by Maurice Valency, The Visit continues through June 25, 2011, at the Tower Grove Abbey on Tennessee Ave. (a one-way street going north in the block between Sidney and Shenandoah), some six blocks south of I-44. Ample, guarded parking adjacent to the attractive church building, three blocks east of Grand Ave. For more information call (314) 865-1995 or visit them on-line at www.straydogtheatre.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors' Equity Association