It was an overcast and rainy October afternoon – perfect for a trek to Chicago to see WildClaw's latest production, The Life of Death
. The play is an adaptation of a Clive Barker short story and the move from the page to the stage was done by one of the troupe's founding members, Charley Sherman.
The story takes place in contemporary London where the latest iteration of Jack the Ripper is on the loose. We meet Elaine Rider, a young woman who has survived a brush with death in the operating theatre where doctors performed a hysterectomy. Out of the hospital she struggles in her quest to get her life back to normal. She is beset by torpor, barely eating and lethargic. Elaine rejects her boyfriend and is despondent that she is unable to give life. She is just plain seems lost.
One day at a cafe Elaine notices some smoke out the window. The waitress tells her that a nearby church is being demolished and that some of the debris is being burned. She wanders over to the site where she meets Kavanagh, a kindly older gentleman who watches the demolition work. Kavanagh explains that work is being slowed by a crypt there which the crews are waiting to open. Both Elaine and Kavanagh have a weird affection for the church. The former seems entranced by it while the latter has what is perhaps an unhealthy interest in them and their attendant crypts.
Curiosity eventually gets the better of Elaine and she investigates the crypt herself. It is littered with bodies and they don't appear to be vintage corpses either. Indeed, the body of a pregnant woman looks like it came right out of one of Elaine's frightful dreams.
The experience brings about remarkable changes in Elaine. She lets her hair down and recommences her social life. Her appetite returns. Something about seeing or being in that crypt amongst all the death has revivified her. This contrasts with Elaine's friends and co-workers who begin to fall ill. Coughs start to produce blood and soon enough lesions appear on skin. In addition to the changes in Elaine and the mysterious illness, Kavanagh takes a turn towards the creepier. In the first act he comes across as an eccentric individual with a fascination with the morbid but he becomes a bit more threatening.
The play picks up a lot of momentum at this point as people die and many questions arise. Is Kavanagh the serial killer that's on the loose? What is this disease ravaging the community? Is it really bubonic plague? Why are Elaine and Kavanagh unaffected by it? To its credit, the play didn't come out and give a lot of answers so you have to puzzle some things out for yourself.
Casey Cunningham played Elaine and was a delight as the show's emotional core. I feel she did a nice job of eliciting the audience's empathy in the first act when Elaine was bogged down in melancholy. She exaggerated some things for effect but never went overboard. In the second act Cunningham again excels. This time it's moving from a sexy, confident woman to one wracked by guilt for having introduced the plague to her friends and also a woman who is convinced that Death is stalking her. These are really three separate characters and Cunningham handled them all well. Steve Herson was Kavanagh and he too put in a wonderful performance. The guy can adjust the level of creepiness in his performance at the microscopic level so you could never really tell if he was evil or just odd until it counted. This ratcheted up the tension perfectly.
My crush on Michaela Petro, who plays Elaine's friend and co-worker Hermione, continues as does my man crush on Brian Amidei. Although each plays very different roles and have very different appearances, they both are commanding presences on the stage.
Speaking of the stage, I should also say that the set and staging was great. The set was gothic faux stone with bits on the sides of the stage opening up for the crypt scene. A projection screen was hanging in back which allowed for newscasts to be shown on it as well as visualizations of Elaine's dreams. There was some clever staging such as that for scenes on the Tube where the actors assembled in the center of the stage and the lights went down except for a couple directly over their heads which isolated them. Another highlight was the scene at a night club where time seems to slow down as Elaine sees the Grim Reaper. The sound crew was great too with subtle, eerie drones adding atmosphere as well as helping to create the subjective, dream-like world in the night club where everyone except Elaine is moving in slow motion.
Never having read the source material, I cannot say how closely WildClaw adhered to it. But, as it stands, I really enjoyed The Life of Death
. It had horror but some emotional depth as well. Plus it played with the audience's expectations and wisely left some questions unanswered.