The Pitchfork Disney stupefied, disgusted and enticed audiences at the Hepburn Zoo from April 14-16. Written in 1991 by Philip Ridley, the often dark, sometimes grotesque comedy was directed by Kristin Corbett ’16.5 and produced by Alexander Burnett ’16 as his senior thesis work. The show began with a masked figure closing the door to the Hepburn Zoo stage and locking no fewer than seven bolts. This proved only the beginning of the isolation, fear and anxiety brought on by The Pitchfork Disney.
The play chronicles a slice of the lives of Presley and Haley Stray, portrayed by Burnett and Madeleine Russell ’19. The 28-year-old twins live very much like children, arguing over everything from chores to chocolate. Their fixations on oblivion, an imaginary apocalypse and violence, however, soon reveal that their childishness is more perverse than it is endearing.
Haley and Presley, whose parents died of mysterious and unknown causes, live cooped up together in their London home, subsisting mostly off of candy and stories spun from their past, their imaginations and their dreams. After Haley falls into a drug-induced sleep that lasts the majority of the play, the twins’ disturbing yet simple life is flipped on its head: a stranger dressed like a ringmaster, Cosmo Disney, played by Cole Merrell ’19, comes into their home and promptly vomits on the floor.
What unfolds thereafter is a crusade of fear through the minds of the characters and the audience members, as Presley and Cosmo detail their lives in twisted and shocking detail. The tension is not so much broken as it is supplemented by the bizarre humor stemming from the strange dynamic between the child like Presley and the devilish Cosmo.
Even before Cosmo explains his circus-like act by eating a cockroach, the audience can sense the palpable surrealism in this nightmarish play.
“This play is a safe space for dangers (not from them), a place to commune with the things we run from but secretly love,” Corbett stated in the Director’s Note.
If this summary sounds strange, it is because the story is strange. Beginning its run for London audiences in the 1990s, The Pitchfork Disney is responsible for inciting the British “in-yer-face” theatre movement. Audiences were shocked by the events onstage, with some people walking out or even fainting from the disturbing and graphic images.
These reactions were both the goals and the side effects of the dark script. The story is a tale of fear, if fear could walk around and knock on your front door. The events of The Pitchfork Disney unspool our fears in a way that appeals to the slimy places within us.
“The Pitchfork Disney is about fears on many different levels,” Russell explained. “I think Cosmo touches on this idea a little bit: our instinct to enjoy being afraid.”
She is referencing the unnerving appearance of a character called Pitchfork Cavalier, played by Daniel Fulham ’18 – a masked, cloaked and lurching figure whose apparently deformed face is never shown. Cosmo calls attention to the audience’s hunger for repulsion.
Themes of fear are approached through the eyes of childlike characters, those most prone to loss, phobia, nightmares and weaknesses. In his numerous monologues, Presley spins visceral and agonizing tales of violence, isolation, fear and the subject of his recurring nightmares: a serial killer called the Pitchfork Disney.
The tone dances between hilarious and menacing, though often hovering in both realms at once. Presley’s story of the snake he bought with his allowance money and subsequently fried and ate turns our stomachs, but also intrigues us. Cosmo’s description of Pitchfork’s horrible features frightens us, but also pulls us in.
“The journey of bringing this play to life has been equal parts terrifying and hilarious,” Burnett wrote in his Producer’s Note. “In rehearsals, we would frequently break down in laughter at its absurdity.”
Although unsettling, the performances were sharp and entertaining, the plot engrossing and fantastic. In many ways, to watch The Pitchfork Disney is to test the limits of what one can bear to witness — and yet still enjoy every moment of it.