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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Down There is Randy Sharp's second play about Sylvia Likens. The first one was a disaster. She wrote and directed it twenty years ago, when she was just out of college, and back then, she thought telling the story of a grotesque murder meant razors, hammers, and blood.
Of course, given the horror of Likens' death, that's an understandable assumption. In July 1965, when she was just sixteen, Sylvia's parents boarded her and her sister with a neighbor, Gertrude Baniszewski, for $20 a week. Soon, however, the Likens stopped sending money, and Baniszewski took it out on Sylvia.
Regular beatings quickly escalated to torture and humiliation, and eventually, Sylvia was locked in Baniszewski's basement. During that time, Baniszewski, her children, and a group of Likens' classmates regularly assaulted her, and one night, they used a sewing needle to brand the phrase "I am a prostitute and proud of it" into her abdomen. In late October, after three months of abuse, Likens died.
At first, Sharp tried to stage this nightmare blow for blow. "When I was twenty-three, I thought it was important to gross out the audience," she says. "That was as artful as I could get. I wrote this crazy play, and it was just a very literal and perhaps gratuitous telling of what happened."
Since then, Sharp has refined her instincts, and she has seen Axis Company, the off-Off Broadway theatre she co-founded, become known for its imaginative and experimental work.
Still, the legend of her ill-fated show has persisted. "It became this myth at Axis that I had done this play where the opening scene was somebody raping her with a hammer, and people were walking out, and it was always a big joke that everyone told. 'Oh, let's do that play!"
A few months ago, the joking finally prompted the company to sit down and read the old script aloud. In a surprising twist, everyone agreed that for all its flaws, the show still had potential. "So then I had to take this script written by a person just out of college and turn it into a proper play," Sharp says.
Enter Down There which runs at Axis through October 30. This time, Sharp, who also directs, eschews almost all on-stage violence in favor of a terrifying mood. In a 1960s home, characters go through the motions of 'normal behavior'---repeating snatches of domestic dialogue, touching each other with robotic affection---but something sinister clearly pulses beneath them. The horror advances as Casey (the stand-in for Sylvia) starts getting verbally abused while the world around her becomes even stranger: Her sister never speaks, people say they're leaving but never exit the stage, and the sound and music suggest some kind of fever dream. The cumulative effect is arguably more unsettling than a straightforward depiction of violence.
That's not an accident. With this play, Sharp wants to explore more than the violence itself. "We're hoping to show the emotional state of the soul of the perpetrators and the victim and bring that impression, that experience, into the audience's heart," she says.
In other words, Down There depicts the spiritual terrain of Likens' killers. It's as though somewhere outside the theatre, the characters' "real" bodies are walking around, but inside the theatre, we see what they carry inside them.
For Sharp, this expressionistic approach addresses the most important question: How could this happen?
"I don't like things that seem inexplicable," she says. "I want to know the explanation for something, even if it's bad. And to me, the thing about this that's inexplicable is that there was a group of people who did this. This thing that took three months. There was an interchangeable group of kids with different personalities, different lives, who went to school, sat in class, looked at other kids, ate food, and then went down to the basement and beat that girl.
"I want to know what sort of condition can exist that can allow that to occur. How much suffering and pain is there in them that would allow them to be so blind to another human being? What is the condition that produces that? And one of my goals is to make you actually feel that condition, how it might feel to be in a house like that."
Yet for all this, the reality of violence isn't totally removed from the play. Occasionally, video of Casey being abused is projected on top of the action, like a ghostly reminder that somewhere above this hellish world of the soul, there's also an actual person being hurt. "We put that in because we realized that it can't just be a play about our impressions and interpretations of how people get that way," Sharp explains. "It's also play about a murder. We have to pay some kind of respect to Sylvia Likens and to the other people whose lives were trapped inside that house."
Whether it's an actual murder or the psychological state that makes murder possible, the show is certainly asking its audience to consider a lot of unpleasant things, but Sharp hopes they take something out of the experience. "Before, with the first play, you were just getting grossed out," she says. "Now maybe you're learning another language. You're experiencing another window that you can look at the world through---the way that someone who could commit this crime sees the world."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
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