By the end of “Holy Day,” two hours without intermission or let-up of gothic horror set in 19th century Australia, the audience has sat through a missing child, an abduction, both homosexual and heterosexual rape, disfigurement, a suicide, vitriolic bigotry, and a massacre — and also a question: Why would a young, downtown theater company put on this relentlessly gruesome play, which was written in 2001 by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell?
It seems largely an attempt by the four-year-old New Natives Theater company to pay homage to the indigenous people of Australia, who are some — but not all — of the victims, while exploring (as they say in the program) “themes of race, gender and justice.” “Holy Day” makes “Boesman and Lena” feel like a comedy.
Yet, I can’t remember the last time I saw such a hateful play given such an impressive production. The eight-member cast is intense and committed, Marisa Kaugar’s set design is simple but effective; Caroline Eng’s sound design adds tension and suspense.
It is 1850, and Nora (Leah Gabriel) is the proprietor of something called The Travelers Rest, a rustic lodge that’s in the middle of nowhere, when three travelers arrive. Two of them, Gaundry (Shane McNaughton, an effective villain) and Epstein (Daniel Holme) are ex-convicts exiled to Australia. Cornelius (a convincingly sad-sack and suffering Connor Delves) is a mute teenager, and, we eventually learn, Gaundry’s victim. Not long afterward, Elizabeth (Jillian Guerts), the local missionary’s wife, bursts in, distraught. Her husband and her child have disappeared. “My child has been taken.”
Eventually, a local woman named Linda (Chenoa Deemal) is accused of stealing the child. She’s dragged to the Rest, beaten and chained to a nearby tree. She defiantly refuses to say a word.
As the plot unfolds, secrets pried public, and lies exposed, we learn that nothing is as it initially appeared; everything is worse.
The characters are vividly etched, surely meant to drive home what it took to survive in that time and place — what cruelties they endured, what cruelties they inflicted. The most memorable of the survivors is Gabriel’s Nora, tough, cynical, God-defying, an occasional prostitute. She tells her unofficially adopted daughter Obedience (Pia Hagen), who has never seen the sea, that it’s red.
Six of the eight characters are white. The only ones who are not white are Linda and Obedience. Nobody uses the word “aborigine” in the play. There are the whites and the blacks, and most of the whites see the blacks as the enemy. The exception seems to be Wakefield (Matthew Vitticore), a local white farmer.
It would be glib to glimpse in “A Holy Day” the origins of Friday’s massacre by a 28-year-old Australian of Muslim worshippers in New Zealand. But it’s certainly bracing to realize once again that hate-fueled gothic horror doesn’t just occur on a stage.
“Holy Day” is running through March 24th at New Ohio Theater