One of the more poetic occupational hazards that comes from lamb slaughtering is insomnia. It figures that counting sheep might lose its effect when your job is to kill them.
This is the situation facing Spencerville (Justin Locklear) at the beginning of the aptly named Dreams of Slaughtered Sheep, another immersive theater experience at the Ochre House. It was written by Matthew Posey, who also directs and plays Charliewise, Spencerville's roommate/mentor in the slaughtering arts. This play with live atmospheric music drags the audience through the wringer of insomnia.
It isn't pleasant, but neither is the point: making a living is, alas, also the making of our dying. When the day ruins the night, the night has no alternative but to retaliate.
Playwright Posey employs elevated language for these rural working folk in the vein of Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? The euphemisms are just the beginning ("kindly" for "knife" and "woolies" for "sheep"; and "to loon" is to go "crazy"). They speak roundly, as if the extra effort in words will cushion their deeds. The sophistication comes crumbling down charmingly for Charliewise, who (as Spencerville discovers) has a crush on one of the ladies who works on the line. Spencerville offers to aid his mentor in writing her a letter as a pseudo Cyrano.
This levity is a brief but appreciated diversion in an otherwise oppressive first act that creeps by with equally creepy environmental music supplied by Trey Pendergrass, Floyd Kearns-Simmons and Natalie Young. When they aren't singing a spiritual in a dial-tone harmony, Ms. Young adds chilling faraway giggles to Mr. Kearns-Simmons synth-twisted cello playing and Mr. Pendergrass' subtle chain rattling. The overall effect is either over the top or dead accurate depending on whether you've ever had your Ambien prescription run out.
The second act brings Chloe (Elizabeth Evans) to the hovel's door. This damsel neighbor has been wounded by her drunken husband and Spencerville must tend to her wounded hand. Charliewise has headed out to cram as much living into the weekend before the week takes over again. As fate (or economic storytelling) would have it, Chloe is in fact the same line worker who is the object of Charliewise's infatuation. But before we can get to the humorous untangling of his love lies, she must witness in Spencerville the ill-effects in him of the job they all share. The ending, which we all expect, begins to circle faster, like the tether ball that you see out of the corner of your eye a little too late.
Mr. Locklear plays Spencerville with the earnest gentleness of the animals he dispatches. He employs the same wide-eyed characterization in the giant puppet head he designed and wears periodically that has…moving eyes. Ms. Evans' Chloe is exactly what you’d expect from that spooky neighbor who knows all about the haunted history of the house you’ve just purchased. But her directness is a welcome change from the euphemistic verbosity of the men. Mr. Posey's Charliewise has more speeds than the other two, from wise mentor to boyish crush to prattling drunk. Sometimes it seems that he's filling in for something he senses is missing.
Once the show settles in, Sheep may end up one you can count on; but on opening night, the tally in the till still rings up a Lil'Bo Peep.