‘Demons’ Review: Grief Is the Thing with Red Fur

When Danily, a red-furred, purple-lipped beast, appears onstage, his giant eyelids fluttering and huge maw flapping, he is irresistibly adorable, like something from Jim Henson’s dreams.

And did I mention he’s a demon?

In “Demons,” presented by Bushwick Starr at the Connelly Theater, a family grieving the recent death of its complicated patriarch becomes the target of a haunting by a puppet ghoul, the unexpected star of an otherwise disorderly production.

The story begins when a family gathers for a funeral. The loud, combative Sissy (Paige Gilbert) and her brother, the reserved Bubba (Donell James Foreman), are home, their respective partners in tow, to tend to their God-fearing mother (Gayle Samuels) and to mourn their late father. Mama and Sissy are always fighting, and Bubba is forced to swallow his mother’s homophobia, even in front of his partner (Ashton Muñiz). To top it off, Bubba must also contend with the death of a father who never recognized his son’s queer identity.

The play, written by Keelay Gipson, who also directs, is divided into five parts, based on the stages of grief. Each section consists of three scenes, showing the relatives chatting, watching TV, playing spades, all while struggling to communicate their real feelings to one another. When the family’s unspoken secrets come out into the open, our demon appears to exacerbate the conflicts, watching with a pair of glowing eyes in the dark, or pulling poltergeist-like shenanigans during a late-night TV session.

You could say Danily is more human than the human characters around him (the fantastic puppet design is by Cedwan Hooks, and Jon Riddleberger directs the puppetry). Because otherwise, Gipson’s two-dimensional direction leaves the cast’s performances transparent. Mama, as the stern but loving matriarch, is a stock character, and Sissy is written unsympathetically and almost exclusively speaks in the tenor of a whine. Sissy and Bubba’s partners aren’t even named.

Minjoo Kim’s lighting design, however, is impressive, from the angular splash of light strewn over white roses in a vase to the hazy spotlight over a character’s face replicating the glow of a TV set.

But other production elements muddle rather than clarify the storytelling. The set design, by Yu Shibagaki, with its black-and-white floral couches and slate-gray textured walls, works for a funeral parlor, but it can’t pull off doubling as Mama’s home. And the television switches between channels depicting “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Labyrinth,” a trailer for the 2001 movie “Kingdom Come” and then later a “Real Housewives” special, seeming to intentionally nod to several different decades and making the setting unclear.

By the end, at least one character has faced his demons, literal and figurative. As for the play, much still bedevils it.

Demons
Through June 3 at the Connelly Theater, Manhattan; thebushwickstarr.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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