Mercury Fur is a cruel show. Well-acted by a small ensemble and beautifully designed, it has a vivid, ugly center. Set in a dystopian North Philly, its protagonist, Elliot, survives by dealing hallucinogenic butterflies which can give the users fantastical visions at the cost of their memories. The play follows Elliot and his brother as they prepare to throw a vile party for a client who wants to act out a brutal fantasy on a child.
Like I said. Cruel.
The show, playing this weekend in the Frear Ensemble Theatre, is Josh McLucas ‘15’s Honors directing thesis. McLucas discovered the play in an anthology while studying abroad in London and, while he was compelled by it immediately, it wasn’t until this fall that he “really felt right” about putting it on. McLucas, who also directed a production of Titus Andronicus last spring, said that the question of violence on stage is one he often grapples with while defining his theatrical voice. “[Violence] certainly isn’t the only thing I’m attracted to, or the only thing that intrigues me,” he said, “but it’s really about the concept of a visceral reaction.”
McLucas said that the visceral reaction to violence in Mercury Fur is a democratizing force: unlike the intellectual enjoyment of Oscar Wilde or Tom Stoppard, shows like Fur don’t require cultural capital for understanding. “That’s how I feel like a lot of playwrights with a capital-P write: you need to understand the references […] to really get them.” For McLucas, violence is a universal entry point and unifying concept. “Or beauty,” he added. “Violence, love, and beauty.”
Is there love and beauty amidst the brutality of Mercury Fur? Over the play’s two hours, there are a few bright spots of something resembling hope. Some of its best scenes take place between Elliot (Tyler Elliott ‘15) and Darren (Simon Bloch ‘17), whose chemistry is apparent from the start. Bloch has an energy that balances Elliott’s world-weariness and explains Elliot’s devotion to him. Their relationship — along with the show’s other romantic and platonic pairs — is the basis for Fur’s central questions: how far would you go to protect someone you love? Would you hurt someone else? Would you hurt them?
Mercury Fur pushes these questions to extremes. While the butterflies have erased many of the ensemble’s memories, most characters have moments where their trauma comes bursting through, remembering who they’ve lost in this hellscape and how. The character’s monologues here are moving (Michaela Shuchman ’16 plays a woman so traumatized she conflates The Sound of Music with her own biography; Wesley Han ’18 recounts his family’s murder in a grocery store), but the play is strongest when the characters play off each other.
There is love between these characters, but I cannot ignore the ugliness that it is screened through. Its cruelty is impossible to understate. The play is beautifully designed and lit (by Matt Saunders and Amanda Jensen, respectively) but it’s dressing for a hideous story. Love isn’t a redeeming force here: it’s transformative in the most monstrous way. While some characters take part in more cruelty than others, they are all complicit.
It’s probably apparent that I struggled to judge the production separately from the play’s morality, and I expect this will be a common reaction. There are “hope-provoking” moments, as McLucas put it, throughout the text, but it’s a bleak account of humanity overall.
Mercury Fur is playing at the LPAC Frear Ensemble Theater on Friday, April 24 at 8:00 p.m., and on Saturday, April 25, at 7:00 p.m. and midnight
Content warning: This performance includes references to suicide, sexually explicit language and situations, verbal and physical violence, gun shots, and flashing lights
Featured image courtesy of The Swarthmore Department of Theater.