While multiple deaths on frozen tundra might not be everyone’s idea of holiday cheer, the Brick Theater’s dark comedy, The Granduncle Quadrilogy: Tales from the Land of Ice, makes for good morbid fun. Much to the chagrin of any characters in his vicinity, the aging Granduncle (played at various ages by Richard Harrington) has decided to share the stories of his past – stories that manage to incorporate stabbing, drowning, slave labor, and a rather inappropriate use of a mammoth trunk. For the most part, the cast tackles the twisted plot with such whimsical innocence that tragic moments rarely seem so. This is particularly the case with Harrington’s warm, yet tone-deaf narration as Granduncle, which provides a hilarious counterpoint to the grim content.
It’s no surprise that Granduncle’s memories are a tad depressing: his home is a frigid, barren landscape (simply rendered by a draped white backdrop) plagued by war. As a result, he and his fellow Land of Ice inhabitants cling as tightly to their religion – centered on a belief that they will join their child-messiah beneath the ice in the afterlife – as they do their furs.
Jeff Lewonczyk’s script so extensively crafts entire cultures with their own lexicons, traditions, and histories that it feels like fictional anthropology. Whether it’s the mating rituals (do a little dance, choose a mate, go to war, and if she doesn’t get pregnant, she joins you) and recreational drugs (huffing albatross eggs) of the Ice folk or the surprisingly expressive hiss-based language of the foreigners who capture Granduncle, the play nicely pulls you into its own world.
In the cast’s capable hands, even the most peculiar traditions or phrasings (describing smell as “taste for nose” was a favorite of mine) seem natural. Playing multiple roles, they make convincing natives of these societies. A particular standout is Fred Backus, who plays both a goofy child and sociopathic foreman with equal conviction.
With such inventive storytelling, it’s unfortunate that the play grows boring by the end, due to its length. Sure, we’ve all had to sit through a long-winded tale from an old relative, but I don’t think grandpa would ever be so cruel as to subject us to a quadruple-header. If anything could be trimmed, it would be the third segment about the construction of a giant ice wall by citizens-turned-slaves. While the kooky, fairy tale plots of the other stories make their fatalities digestible, this one mirrors our world too much.
Still, Granduncle largely succeeds in telling a good story well—a simple goal, but one too often overlooked or unnecessarily complicated by aggressively experimental or ironic productions. Such a uniquely imaginative show as this is enough to put you in the holiday spirit – no matter how many bodies pile up.