Working Class Theatre opened Exquisite Corpse, a play written by Duluthian Steven Pohl at the Play Ground Thursday night. The show is directed by Jody Kujawa.
The premise of the play is, itself, intriguing and a ripe area for contemplation. Two “caretakers” one assumes are nurses, although this is never specified in the show or script, presumably, arrive at work to take care of a nameless woman (Jennie Ross) in what are supposed to be her final hours after being pulled off life support. The details of her illness are also unknown or unrevealed. What follows is a philosophical race to the flat line finish.
William Hare (Jordan Curtis) and William Burke (Stephen Oertel) come to work, each of them in possession of part of the combination code to get into their patient’s hospital room. There are some puzzling aspects to the action such as why they are bringing their backpacks and jackets into a patient’s room, why the refuse can is lined with a Walgreens shopping bag. Small details that are out of place can take attention away from the action and are important to the look and feel of a show.
Of the two, Hare comes unglued during the course of the show, veering quickly into the mildly inappropriate and falling down the path to outright disturbing by the end. A suspension of disbelief is required here for the long term as to why a person tasked daily with tending to the end hours of life would, suddenly, become so disturbed, even if this particular patient has no family or clergy at her side. The philosophical arguments he wages with Burke seem out of place for the character. This is more a challenge with the writing, which is very wordy: too wordy for the actors to hold on to, at many times. Curtis races through the majority of his dialogue and monologue, barely pausing for breaths in between what should be insightful and life-altering doubts about life. Pacing and timing would make the impact of the debate more compelling. Also uneven is Curtis’ delivery and volume. At times where he is relating something especially poignant or troubling, it comes off as an everyday happening. One can’t help but feel that if there were fewer words and more deliberate pacing, there could be real moments on stage instead of a rush to get through the lines in less than 90 minutes. Blocking and stage business would also flesh out what’s happening on stage during key moments where Hare is struggling with his own feelings about the patient and when he’s demanding that she respond to him. A pause here, a gesture there, a beat here and there would add emotional impact, especially the emotional struggles that come with the themes tackled in the writing: quality of life, identity, family, et cetera.
The same can be said for Oertel’s performance, although, arguably, the more believable of the two. Burke’s detachment is expected in his line of work. In fact, his gruesome retelling of the most disturbing case he’d worked on as an EMT is evidence enough of his detachment from getting too personal with the end of life work he takes on every day. But, again, the impact of the words is blunted by what is apparent: the actor’s sheer concentration of remembering and reciting all the many lines the play requires to get the message across to the audience. There are moments on stage where movement would enhance the dialogue; where sheer emotion in real life would require at least anxiety and movement but is not realized on stage. Volume and increase in tension are also lacking throughout with any consistency. If one character is descending into chaos and madness, then we should see that progression. In fact, the character should embrace it and turn in to the skid. What we have here is the opportunity to get there, but dead on arrival.
While both actors deserve credit for the sheer memorization of the script, transferring real life cadences of conversation and movement from script to stage seems to be the primary difficulty with Exquisite Corpse. It is a script in need of heavy editing and filtered through the understanding that there is a difference in the way one writes and in the way people converse. Even the most esoteric concepts of philosophy entertained in the playwright’s words would be taken down a notch in real life debate between people. While the content of the characters’ arguments and points of view are engrossing, the words, simply, get in the way of the acting. With a good editor and a few test audiences with qualified feedback, a second or third run of Exquisite Corpse would probably be an intriguing and well-executed bit of theatre.
EXQUISITE CORPSE. Written by Steven Pohl. Directed by Jody Kujawa for Working Class Theatre at the Play Ground, 11 E. Superior Street, Duluth. With Jordan Curtis, Stephen Oertel, and Jennie Ross (in a most disciplined and compelling nonspeaking, nonmoving role). The show runs Thursdays-Saturdays through April 16. Curtain time: 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. This review is based on the opening night performance.