by Annette Gold
“Where is evil?” sings Baron Peel (the booming, authoritative Robert Osborne), described as a “distinguished anatomist of talent and experience” by his contemporaries. Peel knowingly responds, “You can’t hide it…you can’t stop it.” And then he plunges a knife into a defenseless naked woman.
“Post mortem, of course.”
Such is the mood of the 90-minute absurd romp that is anatomy theater: a piece that effortlessly bridges Gilbert & Sullivan and Philip Glass into a feminist, satirical piece worthy of any stage. Especially in today’s reawakening of populist control over women’s health, the statement that women deserve more than the benefit of the doubt (like, for starters, an opinion) belongs in neon, in patter, in repetitions, in themes of hyperbole.
The show began in the lobby – at first, admittedly, I thought it was a tired trick: extras dressed as 15th-century peasants directed guests to different parts of the lobby for an interactive preshow. Then, the murderess Sarah Osborne (growled by Peabody Southwell) was led in shackles through the crowd signaling the start of the show. We all filtered into the black box, an ideal venue for such a piece to resonate intimately, to find Sarah on a box below a noose. The audience took a moment to gawk and settle into their seats. The extras filled in the sides of the theater – their participation transformed the stark space into a medieval enclave; with eye contact easy and the fourth wall broken, the murderess’ desperation was quite palpable before a single note rang out.
And then, a confession. No lighting change. The impresario/mayor/town crier/necrophile Joshua Crouch (the unparalleled talent Marc Kudisch – someone please produce a one-man show for this awesome actor) announced Sarah’s guilt and let her explain her story: as a teen, her stepfather molested, raped, and drugged her with alcohol; without recourse, she took to the streets as an alcoholic prostitute; she fell in with a pimp who promised her care, but after mothering two children with him, she regularly and violently was abused by him; she resolves to murder him and does, but their children have observed, and so she quietly snuffs out their lives to lessen the burden of what they’ve seen.
But she’s a woman who killed a man, so up she goes. In this production, they actually hanged her. It was one of a number of unsavory moments, as we were then taken to Crouch’s laboratory performance, complete with paying observers, the aforementioned anatomical specialist, and his sidekick Ambrose Strang (brayed with hilarity and integrity by Timur). In between comic gaffes like the spurting blood from Sarah’s internal organ removal and Crouch’s overt masturbation, we are treated to a silly, thoughtful trio venerating surgical instruments reminiscent of the famous “Never mind the why and wherefore” from H.M.S. Pinafore. It’s rather genius. Composer David Lang and his writing partner Mark Dion deserve high accolades for designing such a showpiece for a chamber opera. Arguably, anatomy theater isn’t truly an opera – the singers are mic’d and the singing is often belted by three of the four principles – but whatever it is, it skips along satisfyingly.
Amidst the bloody hacking of poor Sarah’s cadaver, we finally return to Baron Peel’s line about evil. What is evil? Despite their witch hunt, neither man is able to “find” a tangible expression of evil in the murderess’ body. They resolve to try again another time diligently, auctioning her remains to the highest bidder for sexual deviances.
It’s a good question, though: what is evil? Who is evil? Does it even matter what the will of the majority is?
I felt myself really asking these questions during and after this piece, and I was struck by the contrast to Breaking the Waves’ message, which strived for a similar theme but failed to deliver. This is how you make a statement. I couldn’t help but wonder what this team could do with the funding of Waves. We’ll undoubtedly have need of art with that fortitude in the years to come – I look forward to seeing what Prototype offers next season, and hope they trend along those lines.