Few things make theatre audiences more tense than dead bodies. Well, make that dead bodies played by live bodies, since it’s rare to see a fake dead body pass muster on stage. Why bother, when you have willing actors ready to look so believably, humanly dead? A corpse has the power to set us rigid in our seats precisely because we know there’s a beating heart in there.
It’s make-believe at its most extreme: the dead actor pretends their life away, entirely releasing control. It is in the theatre most of all — without the anonymous close-ups and cutaways of television — that we see both life and death at the same time, in the same flesh.
Molotov Theatre understands this queasy doubleness implicitly. And, as DC’s resident haunted house, they’re all too happy to twist us back and forth across that line, whipping out their reliably gruesome set of Grand Guignol tricks and a handful of horror effects to keep us squirming. The vulnerable bodies onstage — and, in Molotov’s morgue, the systematic desecration of them — make for an awfully good reminder to lock our doors at night.
But this gory gang’s also going for laughs, and although some of it lands, Morgue Story is far from scalpel-sharp. More often than not it feels floppy and ungainly, as if it’s the audience’s job to drag the show up onto an autopsy table and make sense of it. Some snappy performances — mainly from Genevieve James and Luke Cieslewicz — give it a sporadic pulse. But the script, adapted by Paulo Biscaia Filho from his Brazilian original, is wildly imprecise, lurching mid-moment into sudden exposition, random sidetracks, and bewildering tangents. So the horror show, lacking scene-craft bold enough to push though the detritus, ends up chasing its own tail when it should be chasing us.
Ain’t nothing wrong with putting stock in shock, gore, and campy humor. It’s just that no show, in any style, should feel like dead weight. Morgue Story hits intermittent marks, but swings wide of its full potential. The acting style, rooted warily in naturalism, shows strain in trying to embody an absurdist story. The effort, meanwhile, pulls energy from the darker, dirtier corners of the horror genre that would truly shock and frighten us. The perversions onstage won’t fly for some audience members, sure — the molestations, murders, and acts of rape aren’t plot twists, they’re the plot itself — but that’s not inexcusable. Did I mention this is a show by Molotov Theatre Group? They’re handing out ponchos in the entryway, for heaven’s sake. What are we to expect but such terrible extremes of the flesh?
To be fair, even through the cast and director Lucas Maloney can’t clear all the hurdles Filho has propped up, they do try to maximize the resulting mess. Their broad, delirious take on this story — a macabre tale about a graphic novelist and a life insurance salesman (James and Cieslewicz) locked in a morgue with a sociopathic coroner (Alex Zavistovich, typecast in a good way) — is like a blunt hammer swung by a clumsy drunk. Nobody walks out unhurt, and some don’t walk out at all.
And at times, Morgue Story delivers. This is a winkingly clever group of artists (the program for this production is one of the funniest single sheets of paper I’ve seen in a long time) and there is also some reward in the communal bond that grows out of thirty audience members making apprehensive rustling noises with their blood ponchos each time Zavistovch pulls out his electric autopsy saw.
It’s the show’s tentative sense of comedy and seeming uncertainty among conflicting styles and forms that strike a broader imbalance. Isn’t there a way for us to laugh because of our fear, rather than in spite of it? Despite the warning signs outside, the world of Morgue Story isn’t so outrageous, or vividly felt. One wishes it were, and more passionately too, so that the blood we feel isn’t so much the red liquid shooting out of bags and squibs as it is the hot stuff pumping through our own hearts.
by Paulo Biscaia Filho
directed by Lucas Maloney
produced by Molotov Theatre Group
reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 1 hour without intermission