Those of a nervous disposition, look away now. The dark, twisted inventiveness of Arthur Pita runs riot across this double-bill of bad parenting, sweeping up murder, suicide, incest and a little light cannibalism as it goes.
Stepmother, a new short work, is an amalgamation of horror stories plucked from traditional fairy tales; the evil twin to Liam Scarlett’s troubling take on Hansel & Gretel. We start with six veiled figures in black pleather trenchcoats arrayed around a Snow White figure (Corey Claire Annand) laid out in a glass coffin. When the veils come off, the half-dozen stepmothers are revealed with Leigh Bowery-style make-up – white faces and black overpainted lips, hair under caps so they can adopt suitably hideous headgear as needed. Poor Snow White doesn’t stand a chance: lifted out of her box and revived, she’s caressed and played with, forced into a corset and manipulated, before being fed a poisoned apple and having her heart ripped out.
The macabre is just getting going, though. As Faure’s Requiem blares out, the delightfully doll-like Annand adopts the personas of a string of ingénues: Cinders, shadowed and smothered by a snake-like, retching stepmother; Rapunzel, trapped and helpless as a scissor-wielding stepmum snips off her plait to flagellate herself with; a tiny girl in white frills, whose beastly sisters set about turning her into a snack; Red Riding Hood, in a scarlet, sequinned anorak, pursued by a wolf/stepmum amalgam with outrageous fake nails.
There’s a robust sense of humour at play here, as the high camp and gross-out possibilities of the material are energetically explored (watch out for the eye-coveting stepmum of the Hansel & Gretel-like pair if you’re squeamish). Pita’s choreography is suitably sturdy; his dancers prowl through the heightened shadows, pounce and swagger, and vigorously manhandle their victim. In an unsettling finale, Christopher Akrill’s stepmother figure is stripped down to just flesh-coloured tights and spike heels, contorting in torturous agonies before gratefully taking up Snow White’s fate. But in their exaggerated awfulness, Pita’s stepmothers also playfully acknowledge the ridiculousness of the misogynistic myth.
Stepfather is Pita’s reworking of a 2007 piece, based on a true story of incest and murder, and soundtracked by the punk folk rock of Violent Femmes. Karl Fagerlund Brekke – bleary eyed, stringy haired, moving as though in a Mogadon trance – is Eugene, the stepfather of the title and the hillbilly horror story that revolves around him is acted out once, briskly, as the Violent Femmes’ Country Death Song plays, then again in more detail.
Pita’s accomplished sideways storytelling works like a charm; he trips us up and teases us with a surreally jokey slant to the ghastly proceedings, having characters slide on and off the stage under the backcloth, adding a jerky “rewind” to start the story again, playing up a redneck scuzziness but adding touches of incongruous sparkle, such as when the three stepdaughters in their garish sateen dresses perform a spirited cheerleader number to Dance Motherf***er Dance.
Brekke does battle with Dead Eugene (Akrill) as he tries not to give in to the temptation of his precocious stepdaughter Mary Lou (the excellent Clemmie Sveaas) – their incestuous grappling is disturbing but cleverly handled and the fallout from the discovery of their crime – Mary Lou is drowned by Eugene, who then commits suicide – culminates in quite the most extraordinary duet, a combination of dance and aerial circus work, as Brekke swings from his noose, embracing a bedraggled Sveaas, risen from the well. It’s certainly not an image you’ll forget in a hurry.