Know Theatre's 'Mercury' is Bloody Funny and Truly Bizarre

Upbeat, offbeat and bloody funny, "Mercury" is a dark horse crowd pleaser featuring an engaging cast and more than a few surprises

click to enlarge James Creque as Nick  and Eileen Earnest as Olive in "Mercury" - Photo: Dan R. Winters
Photo: Dan R. Winters
James Creque as Nick and Eileen Earnest as Olive in "Mercury"

CRITIC'S PICK

Perhaps these are familiar thoughts: What is wrong with me? Why am I struggling to get my point across? Why do I feel so on edge? Could it be that I’m hungry?

Or, could it be that Mercury — the smallest planet in our solar system named for the Roman messenger god — is in retrograde, meaning that it appears to be sliding backward across the sky instead of following its usual course across the heavens.

For those who put their faith in astrology, this occurrence throws everything out of whack.

Currently onstage as the final installment in Know Theatre’s season-long exploration of fear, Steve Yockey’s Mercury marks the second in his planetary series, acting as a companion to his play Pluto, which Know produced in 2013. A grisly and outrageous dark comedy, Mercury was made for anyone who has ever woken up on the wrong side of reality.

Three couples are making unhappy homes just outside of Portland, Oregon. Nick and Brian are crammed together in Nick’s mom’s duplex while she recovers from a mysterious illness in the hospital. Nearby, former lovers Heather and Pamela avoid their husbands, search for lost pets and guzzle scotch. And in a local curiosity shop, a supremely cheerful Alicia gripes about her commitment-phobic boyfriend Sam as she sells oddball Olive a special remedy for her insufferable neighbors. The atmosphere feels combustible, which prompts Alicia to wonder if Mercury is in retrograde.

While watching these stories unfold, you wonder: How are these people connected? Where could all of this possibly be going? And to Yockey’s credit — you’d be hard put to guess. Though Mercury begins quirky and slightly soapy, it does a drastic and unapologetic nosedive straight into gleeful slasher flick airspace. And it’s a fun ride.

When Heather ruptures their under-the-radar romance, her unstable neighbor Pamela takes appalling revenge. Jaded and caustic Pamela (played by Robyn Novak), versus a pert, Stepford-wife-esque Heather (Elizabeth Chinn Molloy) devolves into a boozy, venomous psychological cage match. Meanwhile, Olive — a wide-eyed and seemingly harmless eccentric played by Eileen Earnest in a sun hat and pigtails — can’t abide her darling neighbor Nick’s malcontent boyfriend, Brian. Nick (James Creque) is gentle and courteous whereas Brian (Andrew Ian Adams) is chronically dyspeptic and dissatisfied.

In these situations, more well-adjusted types might call the cops on an unruly neighbor of a former lover gone too far. But in Yockey’s Mercury, they call on demonic pixie dream girl Alicia (portrayed by a charming Tess Talbot) and Sam (a truly shocking Patrick Earl Phillips) to dole out justice. When Olive and Heather’s plans for nuclear-grade vengeance go awry, they are forced to face the fine print of their decisions — the hidden “costs and penalties” of wreaking havoc on the lives of people who are really no more despicable than yourself.

I’ll leave it at that. No spoilers.

Mercury plays out as a series of vignettes with two-hander scenes that gradually climax to a truly bizarre and surprising conclusion. Mercury’s entire cast is delightful to watch as they bicker and brutalize each other. It’s fun to hate Yockey’s characters. Though the play is absurd, it has moments of humanity that stand out against its grimy backdrop. It’s hard not to sympathize with Pamela, who feels deceived; or Olive, who feels cheated; or Nick, who feels frustrated. Yockey wants you to laugh — not analyze — but you can't ignore the uncomfortable questions at the play’s core: What would drive someone crazy? Rejection? Incessant noise? A stolen parking spot? Or Mercury in retrograde?

As Yockey poses these questions in Mercury, he makes it nearly impossible not to laugh about them. The play’s entertaining dialogue and director/designer Andrew Hungerford’s rotating set beckons the audience to lean forward into the story, and wonder what the hell is happening. Noelle Wedig Johnston’s clothing conjures desperate housewives and total maniacs disguised as earthy granola hippies. And it all plays out to Doug Borntrager’s grinding soundscape that is at once ominous and ridiculous.

Upbeat, offbeat and bloody funny, Mercury is a dark-horse crowd pleaser featuring an engaging cast and more than a few surprises. 


Mercury runs through May 11 at Know Theatre (1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine), knowtheatre.com.



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