THEATRE VERTIGO’S FERTILE GROUND offering, Carnivora, opens with a lady climbing out of a burlap sack and screaming bloody murder, and the fact that she isn’t dead is about the cheeriest thing that happens in this macabre tale of a poor Southern family strong-armed into unspeakable violence.
What follows are breakneck, disjointed flashbacks that slowly accumulate into an explanation for how the woman, Lorraine (Stephanie Cordell) got into the bag. And really, any explanation would be preferable to the one that emerges, because the story that slowly shakes loose is a pretty miserable journey into exploitation and the abject that contains just enough suspense to keep you watching.
I won’t divulge too much, but suffice it to say Lorraine and her husband, Hunter (Tom Mounsey), who suffers from PTSD after being deployed to Iraq, are in deep shit. In flashbacks, they’re shown joining a cult led by an uncharismatic sociopath (Nathan Dunkin) who really doesn’t like social media. Oh, and there’s also a mysterious forest woman who looks like the monster behind Winkie’s in Mulholland Dr.
Carnivora leans hard on horror clichés like that one: It contains murderous rednecks, flock-fucking cult leaders, incest, lycanthropic humanoids a’ thirstin’ for some blood, pregnancy as a POSSIBLY-ALIEN INSIDE JOB, infanticide, head wounds, blood-covered slips, vengeful ghosts, crazed husbands wielding axes, scantily-clad women screaming and getting beaten up, a sacrifice that must be made so that beasts aren’t loosed on the world, elemental evil in the shape of a dirty-faced woman, and the general idea that horrific poverty is not horrorific enough on its own.
All that being said, Carnivora is held together by strong performances and its unequivocal devotion to terror. The play promises horror and delivers. It’s a genuinely terrifying thing to watch. (It also gets campy at times, but so do most horror movies, so I’ll allow it.) When I wasn’t adding gorefest clichés to my mental tally, I was indeed very scared. There is a lot of screaming in Carnivora, and frightening noises both simulated and very human. Everyone ends up dusty and covered in fake blood. There is simulated violence and an entire segment of the second half that happens in complete darkness, the only stimuli menacing sounds that feel like they’re inches from your face. Don’t bring your kids, is what I’m saying. And don’t bring me, again, either. Once was definitely enough.