"Burrhead," which could just as well be called "Swamp Gas," is a wild child's Alice in Wonderland. Joby, the young heroine of Deborah Pryor's play, now at New Playwrights' Theater, slips from a carnival's Tunnel of Laffs into the Great Dismal Swamp. The creatures that cross her path are curiouser than the Cheshire Cat.
There is, for starters, Burrhead himself, a crazed visionary in slimy overalls who walks like a gibbon and talks like one, too -- mostly to swamp spirits who mysteriously dog his tracks. Then there are The Twins, sisters in matching pink stretchpants, pin- curled hairdos, butterfly glasses and plastic print purses.
"Ain't nobody gonna listen to you sing about Jesus unless you got a gimmick," they shriekingly explain.
And there's Mrs. Neathawk, Burrhead's mom, a woman with grime on her face who scours the swamp for water mocasins, and deposits them hissing into a trash can for a congregation of snake-handlers. And The Stranger, a plump, cackling apparition in various tacky disguises who tells Joby's fortune with a magic eightball.
And Orrin, a swampdweller who smells like a bear and has bloodstained teeth. After meeting him at the carnival, where our heroine finds herself in charge of the shooting gallery, she falls in love in the Tunnel of Laffs and promptly weds him at the snake handlers' church.
"Are you gonna take that snake off your arm?" she asks during the ceremony, while the congregants moan in religious ecstasy.
"Not a chance, little girl," Orin smilingly replies. "He come to see me get married. I'm gonna give him a front-row seat."
For much of the play Orrin tracks Joby through the swamp packing rifle and blade, and she flees for her life.
The playwright is clearly blessed with a fertile id, and a gift for making savage imagery vivid to an audience. Her play pulsates here and there with a certain primitive power. But what Deborah Pryor isn't showing here is any artistic restraint: some controlling, ordering influence.
Watching "Burrhead" is much like having a dream. The play's neat, happy ending seems desperately contrived, while the symbolism -- everything is a metaphor for something -- seems more wishful than thoughtful.
Still, the production is first-rate, with a cunningly designed all-purpose set by Russell Metheny, smart direction by James Nicola and Lloyd Rose, and evocative performances from a cast led by Marcia Gay Harden as Joby and T.J. Edwards in the title role. BURRHEAD -- Through July 10 at New Playwrights' Theater.