The wooden block at the front of the stage in Square Product Theatre's beautifully challenging play "Slab" brings back memories of photos and news footage of roof tops captured in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when the levees failed New Orleans.
Only instead of saying "Please Help," a red spray painted message asks "Do you believe in life after death?"
It's an apt question for this oft mesmerizing, multi-media story about an ex-stripper named Tiger that stakes its claim to the space between the terribly real and the poetically uncanny.
"Slab" — running through Aug. 16 at CU-Boulder's Atlas Black Box Theater — is based on a forthcoming novel by Selah Saterstrom, director of creative writing at the University of Denver. It was adapted by Gleason Bauer and Square Product's artistic director, Emily K. Harrison.
As director and scenic designer, Bauer has created a set that evokes the detritus of disaster, the hording aesthetic of many a shotgun shack backyard as well as the tools of theater's trade.
Make no mistake, "Slab" not only addresses the toll of natural disaster on memory but also takes on the possibility of theater, be it found in carnival sideshows, a psychic's tent or at a strip joint.
"The worst thing about the theater is that it never begins," states the Narrator, played by actress Hadley Mays, wearing a black stove-pipe hat and black hoop skirt.
And like many a bemused carnival barker or vaudevillian emcee, she surveys a world enticing and dark, a little chaotic.
Once Tiger is introduced, the narrative pathway gets vaguely clearer. Placards the Narrator totes across the stage help orient us to the play's episodic rhythms: "Tiger Gets Her Name," "Tiger and the Glass-Eyed Doll," and "Tiger Hears a Who," to name a few.
The actors give compellingly physical turns. Harrison has a dancer's sense of space and flesh. A good thing, perhaps, since Tiger was once a stripper.
Mark Collins commands as the Preacher. Standing on a pier sermonizing to dead pelicans, he moves with a minister's pent-up, then explosive, energy. Cage Sebastian Pierre brings a sly ease that is seductive or playful or both to the part of Tiger's man, Champ. Lauren Dennis and Paige Larson add to the mix, playing Harriet and Mother/Barbara Walters respectively.
Video designer Christina Battle, lighting designer Jess Buttery and sound designers Janet Feder and Paul Fowler each contributed texture to this dense, poetic work.
When last we saw Square Product, the Boulder-based outfit had joined forces with Denver's Buntport Theater Company to recount the story (stories, really) of Texas bankrobber Peggy Jo Tallas in "Peggy Jo and the Desolate Nothing."
Four years in the making, "Slab" is more ambitious and far more inscrutable. As it matures in performance some of its points — elegiac and ecstactic — are sure to sharpen.
Early in "Slab," psychic Madam Surget tells a seeking Harriet "This is how card reading was taught in the old days. By a poetry of disarray." For the moment, that is not a bad description of this demanding, haunting production.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, email@example.com or twitter.com/bylisakennedy
"SLAB." Drama. 3 stars. Written by Gleason Bauer and Emily K. Harrison. Based on the forthcoming novel by Selah Saterstrom. Featuring Harrison, Mark Collins, Hadley Mays, Cage Sebastian Pierre, Lauren Dennis and Paige Larson. Through Aug. 16. 2 hrs. At the Atlas Black Box theater on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus. Tickets $15-$25 via slab.brownpapertickets.com or 800/838-3006