“I’d been wanting to tell a soapy, lively story about revenge in a very modern setting,” playwright Steve Yockey says. “After a particularly intense holiday experience with my family, where it was clear people had lost the ability (or desire) to hear each other or communicate, I had the emotional ammunition.”
“Mercury,” the play that emerged, makes its co-world premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company this week. (It also opens in November at Stray Cat Theatre in Phoenix.)
Yockey is familiar to local audiences from “Blackberry Winter,” which SLAC staged two years ago, but the two plays couldn’t be more different, observes actor April Fossen, who played Vivienne in that production and portrays Olive in this one. “ ‘Blackberry Winter’ was a real departure for him,” she says.
SLAC associate artistic director Shannon Musgrave, who’s directing “Mercury,” agrees.
“This dark, bloody genre is really what he’s into. To me it’s really exciting theatrically because you don’t see a lot of horror onstage.”
Musgrave fell in love with Yockey’s work at the 2015 Humana Festival, where he had a 10-minute play. “It was hugely theatrical,” she remembers. “There was a ton of comedy and story packed into 10 minutes, and you were left breathless at the end.” She thinks that same mix of darkness and comedy drives “Mercury” and makes it work.
Yockey says that interesting fusion is his goal: “I’m not sure there’s a ‘bright’ way to do a revenge play, but you can absolutely have fun with the dark, messy version. The play, for all its aggression and allusions to violence, is definitely a lot of fun. If there weren’t humor and absurdity in ‘Mercury,’ you’d just be watching horrible people hurt each other.”
SLAC did a reading of the play in April 2016 and was pleased by the response. “People were shocked and delighted by it,” Musgrave recalls, “and really curious how it would work onstage because there are quite a few grand theatrical moments.” The theater decided it would be a fun play to stage at Halloween, especially because opening night is Friday the 13th.
Some of those “grand theatrical moments” have been challenging for a theater with no trap and limited backstage space to stage. “I was expecting ‘we just can’t do that’ phone calls from SLAC,” Yockey says, laughing, “but those calls never came. They’re definitely putting it all onstage. I’m pretty excited to share the results.”
“Mercury” interweaves three stories involving couples that coalesce around a curiosity shop near Portland, Ore. There are such shops, Musgrave says, but they’re not exactly like this one. It specializes in revenge. “When people have been wronged, they go to this store to buy a candle that might burn down someone’s house or a book that will incinerate someone,” she says wryly.
Alicia runs the shop with her boyfriend, Sam, who is a personification of revenge and has a workshop on the planet Mercury, which has an odd resemblance to hell. They seem like a normal couple, except they’ve been dating for 127 years. And the shop’s clients are not nice people.
Which leads us to the other major conjunction in “Mercury”: The play is an intriguing combination of realism and surrealism. “I love to set an intimate story in a familiar setting and then brush it up against some larger, more mythic things,” Yockey says. Fossen explains that the play “takes the boundaries that are on normal theater and stretches them in a way that is fun to explore because those moments of realism butt right up against moments where it goes directly into this surreal world. And we’re in and out of it within the blink of an eye.”
What about the characters of “Mercury” being so unlikable? Will that pose a problem for the audience? Fossen doesn’t think so, even though Olive is one of the nastiest characters. “She’s very relatable in spite of the fact that she’s horrible,” Fossen says. “It’s very attractive to me, this idea of ‘if somebody’s horrible, we’ll do something to them, and that will take care of that problem.’ She has a very myopic view of what is right and what is wrong, and people who do wrong are dealt with in a very particular way.”
It’s a seductive idea but a morally reprehensible one, and that brings us to the method in the madness of “Mercury.” “I think what’s fun and sort of horrifying is that at its core, this play is about people who have no empathy for each other,” Musgrave says. “I feel we’re getting really close to that [in America now]. Just this idea that when your sense of right and wrong conflicts with your neighbor’s, instead of figuring it out, you incinerate them, buy them tea that puts them in the hospital.” Fossen describes it as living in a “land where there are no consequences for anything,” and Yockey says the play asks, “What does it mean to care for each other, and what happens when we lose that ability? What happens when what we individually want or think drowns out everything else? These questions feel more immediate each passing day.”
Yockey, Musgrave and Fossen all see “Mercury” as a dark and funny, fantastic but realistic, snapshot of the climate that characterizes relationships in America today. “I’d love for the audience to recognize the everyday issues these characters are facing,” Yockey says, “and then, as the play unfolds, be delighted and horrified by the terrible ways they handle them.”
SLAC premieres Steve Yockey’s dark comedy about what happens to a group of characters who become obsessed with indulging their appetite for revenge.
When • Previews Wednesday and Thursday; opens Friday and plays Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and Sundays at 1 and 6 p.m., through Nov. 12. Additional performances Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 11 at 2 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $24 to $43 with discounts for students, seniors, groups and those under 30; 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org; contains adult language and material