The Pitchfork Disney, written by multimedia artist Philip Ridley, is currently on display at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW) in Southeast DC. The piece was Ridley’s first stage play and helped form what would become known as the “in-yer-face” theater genre that emerged from the controversial style of ’90s British drama.
The psychodrama has flecks of comedy but is mostly an intense and unsettling journey. The material drips with fear and trauma, as the audience gets a peek into the lives of twins Presley and Haley Stray. The 28-year-olds have lived together, mostly shut off from the outside world, since the unspecified but seemingly tragic death of their parents a decade ago. Their diet consists of mostly chocolate and medicine, and their daily activities are limited to storytelling and sleeping in a drug-induced stupor.
CHAW’s black box theater is an extremely intimate space lined with chairs for the audience against opposite walls. The show, directed by Jack Rento, takes place in an unkempt room in the siblings’ apartment. An old mustard-color paint covers the walls. Duct tape holds a white sheet in place as drapes, framing a large window that looks out onto the street. On one end of the room sits a small kitchenette strewn with wrappers and a candy tin. By the window on the other end is a recliner, where Haley spends most of the play.
As the audience fills the room, Presley Stray (Jack Rento) stands staring out the window into darkness, his reflection visible in the glass and the expression on his face stark and unmoving. Lying in the recliner is Haley Stray (Em Whitworth), equally silent and grim. Their stillness is unsettling and immediately establishes a tone of unease and angst. Even before the performance begins, it is quite clear that these characters are deeply scarred and coping more than living.
When finally the scene starts, the two are arguing over chocolate, who went to the store last, and which one of them is taking more pills than they should from their shared stash. Through the back and forth, it appears that both have some form of agoraphobia, and Haley convinces Presley to take over going to the store “until the end of time,” by revealing a harrowing account of being chased by a pack of wild animals. Whitworth and Rento have incredible chemistry, and their interactions are fascinating to watch. It is unclear how much truth is in the accounts they give each other, but the stories are told by each with passion and genuine terror.
Presley then notices two men standing outside, one attractive man who he believes may be ill and an undescribed “foreigner.” Presley becomes increasingly agitated over their appearance, and Haley begs him to move away from the window for fear of being seen. The foreign one goes away, and Presley becomes more concerned about the attractive stranger. Whitworth and Rento display their unease and anguish convincingly and their relationship is a mix of codependency and toxic enabling. The twins both exhibit strength, but Presley’s dominance is suddenly on full blast when he forces Hayley to suck a dummy (pacifier) doused with their parent’s “medicine,” which promptly puts her to sleep.
And if that is not disturbing enough, Presley then decides to bring inside the sick man, who proceeds to vomit on the floor. Entirely ungrateful and menacingly, the guest demands Presley immediately clean up the mess. Introduces himself as Cosmo Disney (Stephen Kime), he removes his black trench coat to reveal a dazzlingly bright red sequin jacket beneath. We learn that he is a showman and his partner, Pitch (James Finley), has merely gone to fetch their car. Kime is fantastic as Cosmo, and he plays the mesmerizing and manipulative entertainer with perfection.
Rento’s Presley is entranced by Kime’s Cosmo, and the two play this dynamic disturbingly well. Cosmo is surely a villain in handsome garb, but whether or not he is real or a mental aberration Presley has created is unclear. Kime’s intensity is intimidating, and his performance was at times terrifying. More than once, I had to mentally remind myself that I was indeed watching a play and not in danger.
To say the show is bizarre would be a gross understatement. Fascinating would be another word. I left not entirely sure of what I had seen. There was no narrator to explain events, no exposition for history or context. There weren’t even bows. The action ended, the stage was empty, and the lights were still up. The audience sat in silence, looking around for clues. Was that it? Until finally the front-of-house host appeared and thanked us for coming. There was hearty applause and a rumbling of chairs as we all gathered our things to depart.
The actors all did a phenomenal job bringing the dark and dreamlike play to life. Rento had several extensive monologues and showed a tremendous range of emotion and expression when describing his most terrifying nightmare or a wondrous memory.
Even James Finley as Pitchfork Cavalier, who steps on stage late in the story, is able to emote danger without saying a word. Wearing all black, his posture rigid and movement stiff, his head masked and a metal contraption forcing his mouth open, Finley is the stuff of monsters.
The Pitchfork Disney is one of those original experiences that don’t tell you how to feel or what to think. The message of the play has had many interpretations over the years, and I, even still, am working through my thoughts on what I saw. Was it all a dream? Or were Cosmo and Pitch manifestations of Presley’s psychosis, allowing him to perform unspeakable acts on his sister while still acting as her protector when the figments run away?
Were the parents killed? Or did Presley kill them because they were cruel and constantly drugged the twins to keep them asleep? No answers are given. They can only be discussed and debated, which is equally as valuable in entertainment as a happily-ever-after is.
Red Rat Theater’s production of The Pitchfork Disney was a thrilling ride. I would warn that there is a disturbing sexual act that could be triggering for some. The show is not for the faint of heart but is a fascinating and thought-provoking piece that questions reality. For something out of the ordinary and exhilarating, definitely seek out this ride.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
The Pitchfork Disney plays at 8 pm on August 14, 17, and 18, 2023, and at 2 pm on August 19 presented by Red Rat Theater performing at The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop (CHAW), 545 7th Street SE, Washington, Tickets are $28.52 (including fees) for general admission and are available for purchase online.
Age recommendation: The Pitchfork Disney is appropriate for audiences ages 18+, with mature content and themes.
The program for The Pitchfork Disney is online here.
COVID Policy: Masks optional.
The Pitchfork Disney
By Philip Ridley
Jack Rento: Presley Stray, Em Whitworth: Haley Stray, Stephen Kime: Cosmo Disney, James Finley: Pitchfork Cavalier
Jack Rento (Director); Caroline Joy Johnson (Associate Director/Stage Manager); Alexis Sheeks (Lighting Designer); Andrew Goehring (Sound Designer); Sierra Young (Intimacy Direction/Fight Direction); Nick Gay (Videographer/Graphic Design)