Theater review: ‘With Great Difficulty Alice Sits’ presents different kind of horror

(By Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic)

“With Great Difficulty Alice Sits,” a new work from Salvage Vanguard Theater (playing through Nov. 20 at the Off Center), is not, on the face of it, a Halloween-themed play. The show begins with the rather straightforward story of a pregnant woman, the titular Alice, whose due date has come and gone, and her struggle with the pain and difficulty that results.

However, that straightforwardness rapidly disappears.

In the opening moments of the play, cartoonish surrealism and goofy humor abound, with Alice’s husband, Heath, bouncing on-stage with the childlike energy of a loyal puppy, counterbalanced against Alice’s sarcasm. As the play continues, the physical and emotional elements of the couple’s life begin to break down (both literally and figuratively), and the phantom of their unborn daughter, Fireclay, appears to haunt them. Like Lewis Carroll’s heroic girl of the same name (whom Fireclay vaguely resembles), Alice finds herself in a surreal, hallucinatory landscape, where plot, reality, and characterization all come apart.

Hannah Kenah, left, stars in her new play “With Great Difficulty Alice Sits” with Renna Larson. Contributed by Erica Nix

Hannah Kenah, left, stars in her new play “With Great Difficulty Alice Sits” with Renna Larson. Contributed by Erica Nix

The text of “With Great Difficulty Alice Sits,” written by Hanna Kenah, who also stars as Alice, is reminiscent of the British playwright Sarah Kane, whose plays feature brutal, violent breakdowns of the natural and social order. Though “With Great Difficulty Alice Sits” is ultimately less hellish than Kane’s work, and definitely less physically violent, it nevertheless hits the same tone of existential horror and creeping dread that Kane’s plays often do.

This sense of dread owes much to the work of director Jenny Larson and her talented design team. What begins as a simple naturalist living room turns into a kind of haunted house where sets, costumes, props, and even sound and light begin to fracture in surprising, off-putting ways. Larson is unafraid to let the silences in the play breathe, creating a fever dream that leave the audience constantly on edge.

The strong performances at the heart of the show similarly imbue it with a tense atmosphere. Kenah’s good-natured sarcasm slowly grows more and more acidic, while Derek Kolluri, as Heath, becomes ever more withdrawn, resentful, and darkly robotic. Renna Larson, as Fireclay, brings to life the horror movie trope of a disconcerting, towheaded child, while Rubert Reyes, as the unnamed doctor, imbues every last movement with ponderous weight and exhaustion.

“With Great Difficulty Alice Sits” is no mere “house of horrors” fright show, but it does successfully utilize certain horrific tropes and tones to create a dark, tense atmosphere that physicalizes the ways in which what might seemingly be the happiest moment in a young couple’s life can instead turn into deep, painful, psychological torment.

Continues through Nov. 19, salvagevnaguard.org


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