“Home Sweet Home” has traditionally been viewed as such a wholesome thought that people will hang embroidered versions on their kitchen wall. A little moral embroidery is what’s required of the characters in Mad Horse Theatre’s opening production of the season.

Philip Ridley’s 2014 play “Radiant Vermin” is a surreal, dark and very funny satire about how badly people want the home of their dreams and what they are willing to do to have it.

It’s a rough journey for the young British couple Jill (Allison McCall) and Ollie (Joe Bearor) as they accept an unusual offer of a free house. Miss Dee (Dana Wieluns Legawiec), the mysterious government official who makes the offer, assures them that there are no strings attached other than that they must be discreet about the deal. The house is a bit rundown but, Miss Dee notes, with some work it could lead to a renewal of the entire area.

Ollie’s a little reluctant but the pregnant Jill sees the potential of a better home for their growing family and, with the right sort of manipulative encouragement from Miss Dee, the ownership contract is soon signed.

After moving in, the couple finds that there’s a bothersome issue with homeless people camping nearby. An accidental encounter with one of them leads to the discovery that the key to bringing their house quickly up to middle-class standards involves dealing with that issue rather harshly. Finding out the details is worth a trip to the black box theater in South Portland for an experience that will likely make you squirm just a little as you laugh.

Director Jacob Cote has cranked up the performance rhythms of the production to achieve that sense of decisions being made too quickly by young adults too eager to climb the social ladder. The show gets a bit loud at times and those not used to hearing rapid-fire lines delivered with a British accent may miss a few of the laughs. But the overall message comes through, thanks to a fine cast.

McCall is a force as her Jill offers the rationale for their actions to Ollie and, in one long and nearly manic speech, directly to the audience. Ollie’s transformation is a little more subtly suggested by Bearor, until his character fiercely goes all-in on the project of “renovation.” Legawiec is a particularly sinister Miss Dee, creepily offering just the right sort of perverse reasoning to further her intentions.

Legawiec has one other role as the homeless and vulnerable Kay, who gets to spend one last evening with Ollie and Jill. And, speaking of multiple roles, the second act features a neighborhood party populated by a collection of banal strivers, all played by Bearor and McCall, the actors shifting into theatrical overdrive.

The minimal framing set by Stephen Legawiec and sometimes blinding (plot required) lighting by Chris DeFilipp are touches that help bring this diabolical little play home.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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