In the last decade, a new sub-genre of horror flicks has developed called “torture porn,” which seeks to communicate in an extremely over-the-top manner the dangers of vengeance at any cost. Movies like “The Devil’s Rejects” and “Hostel” show how torture ends up turning the good guys bad, leaving the protagonists — and the audience — adrift in a post 9-11 world in which the moral high ground has been abandoned.
Now, that genre has landed in the Brick Theater in Williamsburg, in “The Vigil or the Guided Cradle.”
One would hope that a small, avant-garde theater such as the Brick would provide a great venue for a more substantive examination of the destructive nature of torture than the “Saw” franchise, but unfortunately, that is not to be found in “The Vigil.”
Instead, what viewers get is a tale of two parallel stories set in different “golden eras” of torture, the 15th century and, well, just a few years ago. The stories quickly intersect, and that transition is made more palatable because the writer, Crystal Skillman, has elected to have the characters in the 15th century speak with all the colloquialisms of the modern world.
Obviously, this is meant to hint at how torture through the ages is still the same no matter whether it’s called “enhanced interrogation” or not. But the absurdity of Inquisition-era torturers cursing as if they were just some Joes on the Fulton Mall — as well as their lame attempts at humor — serve only to distract, instead of highlighting the message behind the dual tales of torture.
One of those narratives takes place in Prague, where a naive young woman, played by Mary Louise O’Connor, is vacationing — sort of — while her mother dies of cancer. She encounters a local who agrees to serve as her tour guide, though he has much more sinister intentions.
Meanwhile, two torturers in the 15th century lament that the torturing business just ain’t what it used to be, and that a new colleague’s sleep-deprivation technique will put them all out of a job because his method doesn’t leave any visual scars. Of these three, only Cristian Rummel, playing the sinister Ippolito, brings an intensity appropriate to his sadistic occupation.
In the end, the past and the present intertwine and, in a Lynchian turn, two characters assume different roles in the past and the present. There is an Abu Ghraib reference that I honestly didn’t catch until I read an interview with the screenwriter, and the redemption of one of the torturers — who has a tortured past — rings hollow, considering everyone in this play has blood on their hands anyway. Some gut-wrenching metal at curtain call only reinforces the disconnect between the gravity of the subject matter and the play’s failure to decide whether to treat it absurdly or seriously.
So I was left with the same feeling as after watching one of those “torture porn” movies: “What’s the point?” Well, at least in “The Devil’s Rejects,” the violence is so gnarly that it’s an end unto itself, but in “The Vigil” we don’t even get any gore. Instead, all we get is a play that does not realize its potential.
At any rate, it’s a relatively taut hour and a half — though devoid of any character development. If it were any longer, this play would have begun to feel like, well, you can guess.
“The Vigil or The Guided Cradle” at The Brick [575 Metropolitan Ave. between Union Avenue and Lorimer Street in Williamsburg, (718) 907-6189], through May 8. Tickets $18. For info, visit www.bricktheater.com.