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, like 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.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Lisa Hodsoll, Rick Hammerly and Hunter Styles. Directed by Styles; sound composition and design, Tom Carman and David Lamont Wilson. One hour. Through Sunday at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW. Call 202-315-1305 or visit www.factory449.org.