The Ice Child

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Editorial Review

A cool reception for ‘The Ice Child’
By Celia Wren
Thursday, May 31, 2012

When a play evokes, or in passing refers to, kidnapping, subterranean imprisonment, Ebola, pig slaughter, revenge- fueled sex and the practice of burning people to death inside gas-drenched tires, you might not expect to reproach it principally for being static and, well, a tad dull. But narrative shock tactics don’t generate much momentum in “The Ice Child,” a tedious and underdeveloped horror story created by the adventurous theater collective Factory 449.

Written by collective members Lisa Hodsoll, Rick Hammerly and Hunter Styles, and directed by Styles, this hour-long world premiere does have a certain conceptual and visual boldness going for it. In his director’s notes, Styles calls “The Ice Child” an homage to Edgar Allan Poe, and you can see the legacy of tales like “The Cask of Amontillado” in the story of Catherine (Sara Barker), a young woman who is abducted by an acquaintance and held captive in a coffin-size freezer in his basement. Adding to the grimness of the scenario is the deteriorating atmosphere in the house above, where the marriage between Kidd (Dexter Hamlett) and Nanni (Karin Rosnizeck) has devolved into festering hatred, to the bewilderment of the couple’s anxious and easily manipulated friend Wilson (David Landstrom).

Rather than depicting this macabre melodrama in naturalistic fashion, Styles and his colleagues opt for multimedia-infused stylization. Periodically, the white wall of the abstract set relays video and projections reminiscent of B-movie sequences: Shots of Catherine in the freezer reinforce the morbid ambiance, and static-splintered excerpts from a “Jeopardy!” episode (ostensibly playing on a television in the aforementioned basement) add a fillip of creepy irony.

Meanwhile, the “Ice Child” actors neither look at each other nor physically interact: Deployed in two-person scenes and positioned symmetrically on either side of the stage, sometimes separated by the video, they face the audience and intone their lines into microphones, as if they were participants in a poetry reading. This arrangement can appear striking, especially when saturated colors, such as bright yellow and cobalt blue, drench the backdrop. (Jesse Achtenberg designed the video, Aaron Fisher the projections and Joey Walls the lighting.)

But the absence of actor eye contact ultimately draws attention to the meagerness of the script’s forward drive. The scenes are short and fragmented, and are sometimes given over to flashbacks or tortured monologues, and we rarely see the play’s somewhat sketchily outlined personalities engaging with each other -- and with their own choices -- in a suspenseful, absorbing fashion. Rather than delve into the specific impulses behind Catherine’s kidnapping, “The Ice Child” seems to take a psychological shortcut, suggesting that a hot-button issue from the modern culture wars is responsible. And, despite a surprise plot twist in the denouement, the tale ends too abruptly, as if it had run out of energy.

The actors do an admirable job coping with these limitations. Hamlett brings a plausible air of smiling psychopathy to Kidd, who likes to chat about forms of human sadism. Landstrom’s Wilson is adequately callow; Rosnizeck displays both the venom and the desperation in Nanni; and Barker brings suitable forcefulness to Catherine’s gloomy speeches. The performances help make “The Ice Child” an intense experience, if not a satisfying one. Such is the feeling of release, when you exit the show, that you might almost have been locked in a freezer yourself.

Preview: Factory 449’s fear factor
By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

For Factory 449’s fourth production, company members Rick Hammerly (who is performing in “1776” at Ford’s Theatre) and Lisa Hodsoll wanted to produce an original work. They’d just done two back-to-back world premieres and were ready to write something all their own.

“We were thinking of a horror story,” said Hodsoll. “A ghost story.”

They looked at the stories of Ambrose Bierce, author of “The Devil’s Dictionary.” In hindsight, though, it’s clear that Bierce was just a stop on the horror trail en route to the inevitable: Edgar Allan Poe.

“I came across ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ which I remember scared the bejesus out of me as a kid because somebody got buried alive inside a wall when he was drunk,” said Hammerly, in what actually constitutes a pretty perfect summation of Poe’s short story.

“I thought: Maybe this is the kernel of something,” said Hammerly. “Being buried alive, that’s one of the horrors that’s been around for an eternity and will always be around. It’s a terrifying thing. How do we bring that into 2012?”

This was an easy question to answer, said Hammerly, because, “fortunately I’m also a ‘Criminal Minds’ addict.”

His predilection for police procedurals about violent crime led him to ask, “What if somebody is entombed and kept prisoner in something the size of a coffin?”

The result of that thought experiment is “The Ice Child,” written by Hodsoll, Hammerly and Hunter Styles, who is also directing the show. Catherine, the titular ice child, is abducted and kept in a freezer chest in someone’s basement.

Hammerly was inspired by his recent move to a new apartment. “I started thinking about how I say hi to the people who live on either side of me every day, but I have no idea who they are. . . . You never really know what’s going on in the basement of the place next door.”

The show uses video and has no traditional blocking, said Hodsoll. “The actors are talking to each other, but they’re never actually facing each other,” she explained. “It speaks to the distance and alienation between people.”

Friday - June 3, Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW, www.factory449.org , 202-302-4991.