“He Who” at Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep is a Strong Cocktail of Images and Sound

Oh man, you might be thinking. Avant-garde theater? Isn’t that the stuff where they slather themselves in chocolate and have what your mother would call “inappropriate dinner conversation?”

Isn’t that the stuff where your behind starts to itch two minutes in? Well, sometimes. But Theatre Zarko’s “He Who,” part of Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep, has enough compelling images and interesting content to keep you curious about what comes next. “Wicked,” it’s not. Thought-provoking, it is.

I can only describe the images, because what those images mean is up to you. Three bewigged, pancaked-faced mothers (Nancy Andria, Karen Hoyer and Lauren Montenegro) care for a constantly hungry, ever-thirsty, giant “child” puppet. The mothers are worn and tired, seemingly isolated from the rest of humanity. They console themselves with memories of bygone passion, struggle with the heaviness of unfulfilled longing and battle daily with the impulse to leave their charge. They are occasionally interrogated by a spikey Inquisitor (Colleen Werle) who forces them to examine and remember things they’d rather forget. They cherish exaggerated memories of their baby’s captain-of-industry father, all that’s left of their relationship. No, it isn’t “Jersey Boys.” But I guarantee you won’t be able to stop looking at it.

Writer Michael Montenegro’s narrative deftly mixes spooky sadness with absurd humor; the group’s use of ramshackle industrial age puppetry and gadgetry is very David Lynch circa “Eraserhead.” Musicians Ben Goldberger, Stephen Lieto, Jude Matthews and Noah Silver Mathews back up the piece with shivery, Eastern European-inflected dirges; it’s klezmer from hell. Rachel Birnbaum’s post-apocalyptic costume design provides a visual lynchpin for the longing the piece suggests. No, “He Who” isn’t “South Pacific.” But it will surprise you.

“He Who” runs through April 8 as part of the Steppenwolf Garage Rep Series at the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted. Purchase tickets by calling the box office at 312-932-2422 or visiting steppenwolf.org/garage.