Even when gifted British playwright Caryl Churchill is at her finest, her scripts remain elusive and nonlinear. Long regarded as a creative master of pondering gender politics, Churchill has mesmerized with plays such as "The Skriker," "Cloud Nine," and "Top Girls."
But her 1976 play "Traps" is more of a fascinating dramatic exercise than a particularly engaging play. And that's before the audience tries to unravel the obfuscated path of the script in this look at the changing relationships of six people living communally. In "Traps," Churchill experiments with theatrical form, as she always does, essentially forgoing notions of timeline and causality, and piles up nonsequential and conflicting interactions.
In its inaugural production, Dorchester-based Underdog Stage tackles, even attacks, Churchill's work with noteworthy fearlessness. In the spirit of there's-no-way-out-but-through, the six-person ensemble churns through the constantly shifting actions and intentions in a play that not only reveals information out of sequence, but intermingles actuality and possibility. A character might be missing his wife, kissing his wife, and seeing his wife married to another man all at the same time.
As the play begins, a stream of people appears at a city apartment. Jack (Kevin Harrington) is the sensitive leader of the quasi-commune, Albert (Richard Lindley) is its most neurotic inhabitant, and Syl (Lori Taylor) is its most despondent one. Arrivals include the angry and disenfranchised Del (Jason Dionne), and the unsuccessfully married couple, Reg (Richard La France) and Christie (Summer Ryan Doyle).
Although the play is peculiar from the start, it's not until the arrival of Del that "Traps" really begins to simmer and the structure disintegrates by design. Dionne is explosive as Del, functioning as the first act's violent vortex in comparison to the gentler spirits initially captured by Harrington and Lindley. By Act Two, however, all the characters take turns at torturing one another, and it's difficult to discern what is real and what they wish they were saying. Even as it moves from the city to the country, the communal living on display in "Traps" proves to be more alienating than alluring. The depth of alienation possible is never clearer than in the play's final moments when one character is pressured to strip naked in order to participate in the household's ritualistic evening bath.
Anita Fuchs's set is replete with detail of all the personal clutter that is generated in proportion to the number of people occupying the same space. Even though Fuchs's design is among the best to fill the challenging space at the Piano Factory, it seems to wane in purpose as the eye drifts from the left side of the stage to the right.
As a new ensemble, Underdog Stage demonstrates its potential with this production, but any company would be the underdog when up against such an imponderable script. "Traps" is considered to be among Churchill's least-produced plays. Clearly there's a reason.