Epiphany Theatre Ensemble

at Blue Rider Theatre

Let’s get the bad news out of the way: Dread is a vanity production, directed by the author, Richard Ritter, and featuring him and his wife, Catherine Ritter, in the only two roles. They seem to have very little training as actors, however, for they recite most of their lines in a detached monotone, and even at a distance of 15 feet are sometimes inaudible. The lines they recite, which are supposed to probe some profound philosophical questions, alternate between the inscrutable and the trite, culminating in a ridiculous revelation that scuttles any potential for dramatic climax.

In other words, Dread doesn’t work.

However, the play is a sincere and passionate attempt to grapple with a diabolical question: how are we to deal with the existence of human misery and evil? It’s a clumsy attempt to be sure, an attempt that’s philosophically shallow, dramatically inert, and artistically crippled. But Ritter at least deserves credit for confronting this formidable theme and trying to illuminate it with the simple tools that theater provides.

The play takes place at a table in the Deconstructionist Cafe, where two performance artists are waiting their turns to go before the audience. Christopher, who performs as Heinous Mouth, is going to do an “existential monologue,” while Angel, a dancer, is warming up for her Waltz of the Stone Maiden. Christopher tries to strike up a conversation with the withdrawn Angel by talking incessantly. “It’s a way of filling up the void,” he explains, a comment that foreshadows the existential angst to come in Dread.

As soon as Christopher breaks through Angel’s reserve, however, he starts to abuse her, calling her names and threatening at one point to rip her face off. He accuses her of being the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov: a 90-year-old cardinal who condemns Christ himself, when he returns to earth, to burn at the stake. The cardinal recognizes that anyone who advocates pure love and freedom is a heretic, a threat to the church hierarchy.

Despite his name, Christopher seems to have more in common with the cardinal than with Christ. Just as the cardinal wraps himself in rigid dogma that obscures the real meaning of Christ’s teachings, so Christopher steels himself against life’s horrors by adopting a bitter, cynical attitude. “Nobody believes in the soul anymore,” he sneers at Angel. “It vanished in the smoke of the Holocaust.” When Angel starts calling him the Grand Inquisitor, the label seems better suited to him than her.

That puts Angel in the role of Christ, and sure enough, she offers salvation through faith in God. “I can do all things through Christ,” she proclaims to Christopher. “Even if you had the answers to all possible questions, you still wouldn’t be satisfied. You need God.”

Angel is not chanting some thoughtless born-again mantra, however. She arrived at her conclusions through pain. From age 7 to 14, she was raped by her stepfather every year when he took her deer hunting with him. Then, at the age of 15, she murdered him and her mother, shooting them with a hunting rifle; even though she felt no remorse for the deed, she was acquitted. “My lawyer told the jury that I had become deranged from breathing dread like air for so many years,” she explains. Angel arrived at her faith in God from this experience, and she encourages Christopher to embrace the same faith. “The risk is beautiful . . . of believing in God despite everything,” she says.

Granted, the debate between existential dread and faith in God is pretty old, but it has dramatic possibilities. But Ritter never generates much drama from his protracted 85-minute argument. Instead he issues artless proclamations, such as: “Whenever we try to find ourselves all we discover is an empty hole in our being, which we forever try and fill with various addictions.” And this: “Because we don’t know who we are we define ourselves in terms of others, which is the basis of codependency and the reason people come to holes like the Deconstructionist Cafe and hide while pretending to be something they’re not.”

Ritter adds a Twilight Zone ending in which Angel turns out to be Tombstone Sally, a girl who, when Christopher was a teenager, would let the boys do anything to her as long as they did it at midnight in the cemetery. This development is supposed to deliver a shock, but like a stupid joke it merely numbs, sending the mind in a futile search for a deeper, more complex meaning that simply isn’t there.