SALT LAKE CITY — Mercury, by Steve Yockey, is an absolute curiosity in the best of ways. I had no idea what I was about to get into when I entered the Salt Lake Acting Company‘s theater, but by the time I left, I wanted a repeat performance. Three separate stories intersect in a delightfully dark comedy, due to the negative effects of Mercury in retrograde.
The first story revolves around two unhappy housewives that had previously sought satisfaction with each other in an illicit affair. When Heather (Brighton Hertford) decides it is time to stop, however, and return home to her husband, Pamela (Dee-Dee Darbin-Duffin) becomes aggravated and takes out her unhappiness on Heather’s dog. Heather exacts her revenge in ‘gifting’ Pam a book, which she procured from a strange curiosities shop. Across town, an older woman named Olive (April Fossen) finds her new upstairs neighbor incredibly attractive, and seeks to push out his boyfriend Brian (Tito Livas) in order to move in on poor Nick (Max Huftalin). She too procures a book from the same curiosities shop, gifting it to Brian. What transpires seems key to the experience in the theater, so I’ll be scant with details. Sufficed to say, however, that what follows is incredibly dark and hilarious all at once.
Though this play lives in a heightened world, the performances remained incredibly grounded and sold the comedic situation perfectly. It would have been very easy to turn the characters into caricatures and ignore the emotional stakes behind their actions, but the performances centered from a strong core. I couldn’t help but to empathize with the various relationship strains. The ensemble as a whole complimented each other wonderfully, and I was truly impressed by the way actors played off one another.
While it’s difficult to pin-point any specific performance, I quite enjoyed Darby-Duffin’s rendition of Pamela. She had powerful stage presence and managed to navigate the complexity of Pam’s manipulation with ease. Granted, her character may have been a little sociopathic, but it was absolutely beautiful to see her sell such powerful conviction on the turn of a dime. As Nick, Huftalin remained one of the more sympathetic characters of the evening. The complexities of his relationship with Brian showed strain clearly, but the element of caring that Huftalin brought to his scenes made the experiences all the more intimate. I felt as though I was prying into the character’s private lives, not just watching a performance. Also of note was Aaron Adams as Sam. I won’t spoil his character with a description, but his portrayal was certainly one of the more humorous points of the evening.
The technical elements only supported this fantastic production further. A rotating stage (designed by Gage Williams), moved by one of the characters, allowed for peeks into more private settings. This movement gave the sense that the characters’ lives were no longer under their control—that perhaps the characters were being manipulated and turned about by a higher power. The lighting (James M. Craig) certainly amplified the creepy feel, and was particularly effective in use of more supernatural scenes.
The costumes (Phillip R. Lowe) helped tell each character’s story and let us see them more as people than caricatures. I felt like the characters were well-equipped to walk off the stage and into daily life. The props (Janice Jenson) functioned so, so well: there was lots of blood everywhere and I found the employment of a full-sized bear to be absolutely spectacular. There’s a lot in the script that seems challenging to stage; many moments of heightened spectacle that would surely be daunting in approach. However, the creative team came together and delivered a seamless performance. Kudos to director Shannon Musgrave for combining the macabre with maturity and bringing to life this amazing piece. This performance shows collaboration at its finest with the spectacle it created and culminated in a truly terrifying play.
I’m not familiar with the work of Steve Yockey, but after seeing this play, I am excited to see SLAC feature more of his work. The writing felt natural and totally plausible in a world where nothing of what happened should be expected to happen. However, I wish the play had a stronger final ‘button’ on it—so many things happened that the ending felt a little unfinished. Nevertheless, Mercury is a strong piece for SLAC’s repertoire and perfect for the Halloween season.
I’d encourage viewers to take time out of their day to experience this piece. The venue is amazing; the staff is hospitable and friendly; and the theater is exemplary of what Utah theater can be. Be aware that I would give this play a solid PG-13 rating: there’s a little nudity, lots of blood, and mature themes, so I’d advise against taking younger audience members to see it. At only a 90 minute run time with no intermission, it’s a short trip into a horrific world, but well worth the trip to SLAC.