Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Radiant Vermin
Lyric Arts Main Street Stage
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Clue, In the Green, On Beckett, Hells Canyon and Wine in the Wilderness

Callie Baack, Noah Hynick, and Danielle Krivinchuk
Photo by Molly Weibel
Early in Philip Ridley's play, Radiant Vermin, a sweet young couple, Ollie (Noah Hynick) and Jill (Callie Baack)–Jill carrying a swaddled baby and well into another pregnancy–tell the audience (no fourth wall here) that they have just celebrated their son Benjamin's first birthday, which turned into the garden party from hell (Ollie's words). They want us to understand how things in their lives spiraled to this point but warn us that when we hear their story we are likely to think some of the things they have done were not very nice–horrible, really. Ollie and Jill seem like such an earnest twosome, it is hard to imagine what they did that was so very dreadful. Besides, they assure us, everything they did was for Benjamin and their second son on the way. Surely we will understand.

Lyric Arts Main Street Stage is presenting Radiant Vermin, which premiered in England in 2015 and had a brief 2016 engagement in New York as part of that year's Brits Off-Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters. In spite of it being a play that is likely to make most audiences uncomfortable, and the fact that Jill and Ollie are correct, they indeed behave dreadfully (much worse than that, really), it is a good play, raising challenging ideas. Fortunately, Lyric Arts is giving it a solid production, with Callie Aho's direction embracing its lunacy and total assault on conspicuous consumption, along with a trio of top-notch performances.

Jill and Ollie begin their account about eighteen months before we meet them. Jill is pregnant with Benjamin, their first child. They are working class, eking out just enough to get by, and live in a council house, the British version of government subsidized low-income housing. Jill agonizes about raising their child in a place where drug use and gangs are rampant and she fantasizes about her dream house. Then, a miracle of sorts occurs. They are selected for a new government project, the Department of Social Rejuvenation through the Creation of Dreamhouses. It will give Ollie and Jill a house for free. Ollie suspects it is a reality television ruse, aimed at making fools of the underclass, such as them, but Jill wants to check it out and meet the agent, Miss Dee (Danielle Krivinchuk), at the address provided.

The house is in a desolate location and whatever was once around it has been demolished. Ollie is appalled, for the house is a shambles, and nothing seems to work. It will require massive remodeling to become a decent home. But Jill, eager to believe that this is their one chance, sees only the potential. The rooms are large, and there is plenty of space for a garden. Ollie is handy–he can do a lot of the necessary work. Miss Dee explains the program: one house given absolutely free–no strings attached–to the "right" couple, one who can transform it into a "dream house," will draw others to buy lots and build quality houses around them, which will lead to shopping malls and other types of development and, voila, "social rejuvenation" takes hold.

During the first night in their new home, Jill becomes uneasy when noticing bonfires on the vacant lots surrounding their house, the encampments of homeless people. In bed they hear what sounds like an intruder in the kitchen, and Ollie goes to check things out. It is one of the homeless, rummaging for food–an unwelcome visitor, but surely not meaning to harm the young couple. However, things that might have been easily sorted out go very badly.

I dare not tell more, other than to say that room by room, the house does get renovated. And the program works, just as Miss Dee described it. Neighbors move in, welcomed by Ollie and Jill, though also in conflict with their wish for privacy. It is this array of neighbors who attend the "garden party from hell." In a re-enactment of the that party, Callie Baack and Noah Hynick perform a tour de force, with alterations to their voices and facial expressions, playing all nine (I believe, it was hard to keep count) adults at the party, along with a few children. It is a hilarious bit of mayhem that builds to a steady head, executed with perfect timing by Baack and Hynick under Aho's steadying direction.

Hynick, who was a hoot as Squidward in Lyric Art's production of The SpongeBob Musical, is terrific in a quite different role, a husband who, in straining to satisfy his wife's yearnings, descends into a horrifyingly dark dilemma. Baack is wonderful as Jill, showing a sweetly sincere veneer that allows her to live with the delusion that her choices are being made out of concern for her children's future. The repartee between Hynick and Baack is very well played, and there is never a doubt that, for all the wrong-headed choices they make, these two love one another.

Krivinchuk is lip-smacking good as Miss Dee, with a simpering way of calling the young couple "Children..." to put herself in a position of authority over them. Krivinchuk is also convincing as a runaway homeless teenager whose notion of purpose in life is pathetically twisted.

Cory Skold's inventive set design goes a long way toward animating the play. What we see is the dilapidated shell of the rundown house given to Jill and Ollie, including a kitchen that looks as if a gangland war might have taken place in it, and an upstairs landing with a bathroom greatly in need of overhaul. The house looks the same even as renovations are made to it, which correspondents to a steady feeling throughout Radiant Vermin that, no matter how finely furnished and updated their house becomes, the environment in which Jill and Odie have placed themselves is unchanged.

Jessica Moore's costume designs are well conceived, in particular those for Miss Dee, which practically proclaim her as a purveyor of malevolence. Shannon Elliott contributes both lighting and sound design, which both add to creating a robust production. Dialect coach Gillian Constable is to be commended for coaching the actors in performing their roles with English accents.

Ridley is a prolific English playwright, novelist, songwriter, children's book author, and performance artist. He first made his mark in the U.K. in the early 1990s, but his work has been little seen in the Twin Cities, and this is my first encounter with it. His dialogue captures the way people speak under different circumstances, including some that are unimaginable. He drops in truly funny bits, such as naming the mall that materializes the Never-Enough Shopping Center. Based on this sample, he is not one to hold back from making strong social criticisms, wrapped in irony, and an internal logic that brings to mind the plays of Joe Orton. His criticism here: that rampant, competitive, consumerism will destroy us.

Ridley can also write gripping dialogue, as when Jill acknowledges feelings that, perhaps, are remorse: "I feel this thing inside me. Just here. Next to my heart. It's small. The size of a sparrow. I don't know what it looks like. But I know it's got claws because it scratches. And I imagine it to be dark blue–mauve almost–like the veins on my mum's hands. I hear it talking. Its voice is high pitched and screeching. It's talking about all the things we've done." Trenchant writing, is it not?

Be forewarned that, though the violence in Radiant Vermin is never depicted on stage, it may still be disturbing to some, as may its depiction of people deluding themselves into believing their own rationalizations for over-riding basic tenets of decency. That said, it is a very good play, presenting a new voice with discomforting but important ideas, and a great deal of cleverness that entertains even as its characters challenge the norms of civilized behavior. Lyric Arts is to be commended for this bold choice and for framing it in an all-around excellent production.

Radiant Vermin runs through March 24, 2024, at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. For tickets and information, please call 763-422-1838 or visit

Playwright: Philip Ridley; Director and Intimacy Director: Callie Aho; Scenic Design: Cory Skold; Costume Design: Jessica Moore; Lighting and Sound Design: Shannon Elliott; Props Design: Vicky Erickson; Dialect Coach: Gillian Constable; Stage Manager: Joe Black; Assistant Stage Managers: Andrew J. Pritchard.

Cast: Callie Black (Jill), Noah Hynick (Ollie), Danielle Krivinchuk (Miss Dee