By James Bartholomew
Without a doubt, “The Creeps” lives up to its name. Written and performed by Catherine Waller, the show tells the story of a bizarre group of malformed misfits living and surviving in a derelict building lorded over by a mysterious, oppressive doctor. With the audience encouraged to participate, Ms. Waller’s freak show is a strange and ghoulish journey into the surreal and the absurd.
Extreme is the name of the game with “The Creeps.” All of Ms. Waller’s characters, convincing and sympathetic though they are, twist, contort, shake, and hobble around the stage as they tell their tales and prod at the audience. Each of them is broken in one way or another – mentally as much as physically – and while they’re not all here by choice, each is tragically and hopelessly tied to the dangerous doctor pulling the strings.
Loosely structured as a free-roaming tour of the building occupied by the titular creeps, the show places its audience right in the action with Ms. Waller’s brilliant crowd work. The four characters interact with their spectators in unique ways; a sleezy partygoer tries to recruit helpers for his master’s odd jobs, a kindly blind furnace stoker trades stories of fatherhood, a mutilated child demands shiny jewelry, and a drugged-up prostitute solicits the front row while dancing on her chair. Ms. Waller alternates between the building’s residents as she unravels the mystery that keeps her outlandish oddballs locked away.
Even with characters this grotesque and disturbing, Ms. Waller’s impressive character work humanizes them and keeps the piece moving at a steady pace. This is living at its most dangerous and frayed, and while that’s certainly heartbreaking, there’s a strange gallows humor to the whole affair. When that deformed child, her feet and hands amputated and brain likely lobotomized, is asked her name, she replies with a shrug, “Stumpy,” and is greeted with thunderous laughter. Soon after, she grows furious with a man who repeatedly refuses to give up his shiny, silver bracelet, much to the delight of the audience. Her bratty quips are disarmingly familiar and even relatable, making the horror of her plight all the more distressing and real.
Amazingly, both moments are only possible with a chatty, captivated audience that responded to Ms. Waller’s laudable improvisations. Entire chunks of backstory and characterization happen through questions and outbursts from the audience. There’s a sense that whole plot elements were left out of the performance simply because they never came up in conversation. It takes immeasurable confidence to give an audience that kind of control, but the strange and wonderful characters of “The Creeps” are so instantly enchanting that it pays off in spades.
That’s not to suggest that “The Creeps” isn’t meticulously crafted or well-written. It is both, thanks in part to some clever planting and foreshadowing that help ground a play already so unhinged from normalcy. For a piece of such starkly disparate and outrageous characters, the strong yet subtle thematic cohesion at play here is remarkable. “The Creeps” has plenty to say about the humanity still stirring in these ostracized others and our own complicity in their misery. Ms. Waller performs much of the play hunched over or contorted in some strange position, practically begging her audience to crane their necks to get a look. As these poor dregs and wretches debase themselves throughout the show, it’s easy to feel like a guilty voyeur, simply for enjoying the spectacle.
“The Creeps” is a mad circus of a play, and each of the freaks under the big top is a showstopping wonder. Ms. Waller shows a distinct talent for inhabiting the ragged skin of the most deranged and unsettling souls she can muster, but she does it all with the sorrow and charm necessary to make her misshaped miscreants nuanced and compelling. Humble enough to laugh at its own absurdity, but confident enough to keep its audience constantly guessing, “The Creeps” is a Master Class in the macabre. Step right up, folks.
Written and Performed by Catherine Waller
Oct. 23 at 7:30pm, Nov. 10 at 6pm
Producer & Technician: Elle Shaw
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.