In ‘Octagon,’ a meeting of public poetry and private rage

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Kiki Layne plays Prism and Ryan Hallahan plsys Atticus in “Octagon,” at Jackalope Theatre. (Photo: Joel Maisonet)

Talk about going for the jugular — both literally and metaphorically.

When a play opens with a bedroom scene in which a man and woman are having sex, and he is pressing a pillow over her face “Othello/Desdemona style,” you might think there is nowhere left to go. Then, when the pillow is removed, and the woman proceeds to ask for more pressure on her neck — and her hesitant partner asks her for a “a safe word” and is told there is no need for one — things can only go from bad to worse.

As it happens, this is precisely how “Octagon,” Kristiana Rae Colon’s spoken-word play is set in motion. And for its U.S. premiere at Jackalope Theatre (it debuted last year at London’s Arcola Theatre), director Tara Branham has gathered an ensemble of eight go-for-broke actors who deal fearlessly with both the explosive, hip-hop-driven language and extreme behavior of Colon’s characters.

Together these characters demand your undivided attention, whether stomping out the fierce rhythms of their rants, or communicating in the sort of intimate terms that turn the audience into voyeurs of psychological and physical transgression.

‘OCTAGON’ Recommended When: Through Nov. 20 Where: Jackalope Theatre at Broadway Armory Park,5917 N Broadway Tickets: $5 – $25 Info: www.jackalopetheatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission

Colon’s characters operate on two levels. They all are involved in a poetry slam competition called Octagon that will determine who will move on to the nationals and to a chance at the financially rewarding “university circuit.” And as they meet at the club where they perform there is a clear tension between the veterans and the newcomers, as well as between the men and women. In addition, they are involved in tricky personal relationships with each other, with the competition for sex, love and domination often overshadowing their poetry slam success. And public and private issues frequently overlap.

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Sydney Charles (from left) is The Watcher Named Pen, with Mykele Deville as Chimney and Will Kiley as Chad in “Octagon,” at Jackalope Theatre. (Photo: Joel Maisonet)

Hosting the competition is The Watcher Named Pen (the ever-charismatic and commanding Sydney Charles), a tough, alluring, prize-winning poet who worries about her young daughter (and who we hear arguing with the child’s father by phone). She also feels responsible for the stunningly beautiful and charismatic young woman Prism (Kiki Layne in a stellar, highly erotic turn), the prodigy she mentored, and whose overwhelming need to control men (and at the same time be controlled by them) very clearly puts her in a danger zone.

Prism, who flaunts her power and self-destructive “freedom,” has had affairs with several of the male competitors, and boasts she will not be owned by any man. But things become truly explosive with the arrival of a seductively handsome “rookie” slammer, Atticus (Ryan Hallahan, a riveting actor who first left a powerful impression in the Stage Left production of “The Body of an American” last spring). Like Prism, Atticus is something of a human grenade, and a nihilist. And the instant surge of electricity between these two is palpable, for they each have met their match. Inevitably, sirens will sound.

They are not alone. There also are feverish turns by Travis Delgado as Tide, the bespectacled, warm-hearted intellectual; Mykele Deville as Chimney, the heated wordsmith; Eric Gerard as Palace, who has a bit of the mischievous joker about him; Will Kiley as Chad, the Christian believer troubled by the moral choices of his fellow poets, and Tina Muñoz-Pandya as Jericho, the gifted Muslim-American poet who resents that she will always come in second to Prism.

Colon’s poets tap into all the expected subjects, from racism and terrorism to the abuses of capitalism. But to her credit she also acknowledges the careerism and narcissism of these neo-bohemians who deal in words rather than action, and are keenly focused on their image on camera and in social media.

Not for the squeamish, “Octagon” grows repetitive at moments, but the ferocity of the actors here and the overall propulsion of Branham’s direction (with its “fight and sex choreography” by Sasha Smith) keep you hooked. And adding plenty of atmosphere are Shaun Renfro’s raw, multileveled, reverberant set, Claire Sangster’s vivid lighting, Mieka Van der Ploeg’s glam chic-meets-shabby-downtown costumes, and Jeffrey Levin’s outstanding sound design that keeps the beat reverberating.

Travis Delgado plays Tide in “Octagon,” at Jackalope Theatre. (Photo: Joel Maisonet)

Travis Delgado plays Tide in “Octagon,” at Jackalope Theatre. (Photo: Joel Maisonet)

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