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Arts and Entertainment

Creepy Cannibalistic 'Mice' Take Stage At Ensemble Studio Theatre

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Two women, both ministers' wives we soon find out, are chained to posts and lay crumpled on the floor in a basement as we enter the tiny Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST/LA) space in Atwater Village. Motionless with their faces hidden until the house lights go down, Ayushi (Sharmila Devar) and Grace (Heather Robinson) later spring into action, trying to determine where they are, why they've been kidnapped by a man dressed as a mouse, who that guy even is, how they might plan an escape, and what will happen to them if they don't.

Ayushi, who's been there longer, mentions that the meat loaf they're served for dinner each night is made from the flesh of the abducted women who'd been in Grace's place before she arrived. When their captor (Kevin Comartin) arrives, his head and body (other than his hands) are entirely hidden inside a stained old amusement park mouse suit. The costume also speaks to him, goads him, in a manner reminiscent of Norman Bates's mother. And he never takes it off.

The premise of Schaeffer Nelson's Mice might sound ridiculous to the point of parody, but this taut 70-minute psychological thriller is no joke. As the power dynamics shift among these characters, each of them is put to a test that reveals how prior confrontations with religious principles and communities inform their respective actions now (I'm trying not to give too much away here). These unexpected tensions heighten further when the number of basement occupants is reduced from three to two.

Nelson, who developed this play in EST/LA's New West under-30 playwrights' program, smartly delivers only limited doses of relevant information about the trio's previous experiences, allowing our perpetual unease to arise out of the unfolding events rather than the surprising recollected revelations. Director Roderick Menzies does everything right to deny us even the briefest respite from the horror of the entire extended moment, frequently aided by sound designer David Boman's ominous sonic undertone.

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Devar and Robinson are a starkly contrasting pair of shackled captives, whom we sense would have little to say to each other in the daylight, despite their common background. Their situation, however, leads them to encourage each other to try and survive until they can figure out how to free themselves. Both of them win our sympathies at the outset of the play, and both challenge us to maintain our rooting interest in them before it's over. Perceived mostly as a voice emanating from inside his mouse suit, Comartin is likewise successful at creeping us out the whole time.

Born and raised in an evangelical minister's family, Nelson profoundly hints in Mice at the powerful hold of religious adherence and identity, as well as the seismic jolt that may strike when these foundations are abandoned. Not just a play of ideas, though, this production is every bit a high-suspense game of life and death with winners and losers you won't guess.

EST/LA's production of Mice plays Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8, and Sunday afternoons at 4. The show runs through November 5 at the Atwater Village Theatre. Tickets $15-$20 online, $20-$25 at the door.