Succumb, All Ye Faithful!
When I was invited to check out WildClaw Theatre's The Life of Death, part of me expected to see a gothic, bloody nightmare full of sex and philosophy-spouting monsters. The play is adapted from a Clive Barker story, after all. A few minutes in, though, I remembered that there are two Clive Barkers in popular culture: one who gave us Hellraiser's pierced, immortal perverts and one who prefers the Lovecraftian slow burn of average people grappling with enormous, ancient, cosmic forces. The Life of Death is mostly the latter, with a smattering (splattering?) of gore to sate those whose favorite holiday is Halloween.
The story opens on Elaine (Casey Cunningham), a young London professional who's in the early stages of recovery from a premature hysterectomy. She's severely depressed by not being able to give her boyfriend Mitch (Adam Soule) a child someday, and bizarre dreams of chanting, shadowy figures make sleep problematic. She skulks about her apartment, her office, and the streets in between, unable to relate to the Christmas cheer filling the air.
Elaine is so consumed by her own problems that she barely notices three major events affecting the community: a centuries-old church is in the process of being demolished, though excavation crews have been unable to pierce what experts believe is a crypt located under its stone floor; a serial killer has been terrorizing the area for weeks--strangling and disposing of bodies, and leaving no clues for the police; and the news has become fascinated with an Australian boater (Ira Amyx) who was rescued after spending an ungodly amount of time stranded at sea (his survival isn't half as interesting as his claims of seeing a man expectantly pacing the top of the boat during his most desperate moments).
Into Elaine's life strolls Kavanagh (Steve Herson), an older gentleman who's fascinated by the church demolition, and who takes a liking to the troubled girl he meets while paying a final visit. He's warm and a bit awkward, and is drawn to the deep loneliness that seems to mirror his own. They begin a friendship that, like all the others in Elaine's life, is put to the test when she is compelled by a dream to break into the crypt late one night. What she discovers beneath the sanctuary brings every recent event--foreground and background--into terrible, revelatory focus.
I won't go further into the plot, as The Life of Death demands a great deal innocence on the part of the viewer. If you're familiar with horror stories from the stage or the screen, it will come as no surprise that Kavanagh is not who he seems to be. But adaptor Charley Sherman and director Carolyn Klein do a tremendous job of keeping the narrative misdirection popping. Engaged audience members tend to treat these kinds of off-beat whodunits like two-hour brain teasers, and the people behind this production manage to stay several steps ahead until almost the very end.
They achieve this through brilliant multimedia distractions that transform the DCASE Storefront Theatre into more than just a stage play venue. The Australian's tale is told via news reports and interview footage played on a gigantic monitor hanging to the right of the stone church vestibule. It towers above a mini-set of Elaine's apartment that's centered around her big, comfy chair. Diagonal to that is an oft-illuminated catwalk that serves as the backdrop for cut-aways to people that Elaine speaks to on the phone. The effect of this crisscrossed arrangement is akin to reading comic book panels, allowing the viewer to zero in on key actions in various places without having to mentally block out the omnipresent church set.
This play is an immersive feat of black magic, thanks largley to the perfect marriage of sound (Christopher Kriz), lighting (Brandon Wardell), and scenery (John Wilson). The creators are in full command of where and how the audience focuses its attention--particularly in the crypt sequence, which caught me completely off guard in a genuine, jaw-dropping moment or terror. It's not so much that Elaine's grisly discovery is so shocking (thanks for the nightmares, Dave Skvarla!) as it is the way in which my eyes were led to it. I didn't think it possible for a live performance to perfectly recreate the editing techniques and camera movements of a great horror movie, but these folks have done so in spades.
Speaking of movies, I'd like to point out a couple of scenes that I still can't stop marveling over. One takes place in Elaine's office, and involves an eerily convincing eight-hour time lapse; the other is set in a dance club where the revellers snap from hard-driving techno grinding to a perfect slow-motion ballet and back again. In both cases, Movement Designer Karen Tarjan and the cast create a puzzling illusion that took me right out of the play--in a good way. I literally couldn't understand how I was seeing what I was seeing. Perhaps this is a function of my newness to these kinds of live performances (I'm mostly a film critic, after all), but I've been searching for this level of innovation and talent at cineplexes for years.
The special effects and staging would be impressive even without a terrific cast; luckily, The Life of Death is a complete entertainment package. Cunningham and Herson make a captivating duo, a sort of gender-reversed Harold and Maude who both harbor damage and dark secrets. The supporting cast are authentically annoying, precisely in the way they were designed to be. A big theme in Barker's work is the soul-dead mediocrity of the people surrounding his protagonists. Here, everyone from Elaine's smarmy ex to her obnoxious best friend Hermione (played with deceptive nuance by Michaela Petro) to her cheery boss (Bryson Engelen) and his ditzy secretary (Mallory Nees) draw a horrifyingly upbeat contrast to our heroine's inner turmoil. Like Mark Renton's detox montage in Trainspotting, we feel Elaine's isolation deeply, especially when she's surrounded by friends.
My one problem with the play comes towards the very end, and is a simple matter of timing. There are perhaps ten minutes between two back-to-back scenes that feel like unnecessary hand-holding. Elaine delivers an extended monologue that is meant to convey her thoughts, but which strays into "Why is she talking to herself so much?" territory. In the next scene, there's a bit of a dance between her and Kavanagh that would have been more suspenseful had the big twist not shown up ahead of schedule. As my friend Graham noted, it's not good when the audience gets ahead of the narrative, and I'd say this is the one instance in which Barker (or perhaps Barker and Sherman) fall behind.
Despite that bump in the road, I highly recommend The Life of Death. It's a good story carried by great themes, greater performances, and a refreshingly imaginative way of engaging an audience. This is Halloween-season entertainment for adults who don't mind a little blood-'n-guts with their gut-wrenching existentialism.
Details: The Life of Death runs Thursdays through Sundays until November 4th at Chicago's DCASE Storefront Theater (66 E. Randolph, Chicago, 60601). Tickets range from $15 to $25, and can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets.
Note: It wasn't until the morning after I saw The Life of Death that I was able to dislodge a nagging mental splinter: I knew I'd seen Herson in something before, and that I'd really enjoyed that performance, too. It turns out he had a small but very memorable role in one of my favorite films this year, Dead Weight.