Once in a while, a production comes on the scene that grabs your lapel and directs you toward sights and sounds that seem breathtakingly unfamiliar, breaking new ground with each spoken word and nuance. What’s even more impressive is the way in which a morbid subject matter, namely the extraction of human organs to ascertain an inherent evil in the female protagonist, serves both a historically accurate and creative production.
The just recently completed collaboration of anatomy theater at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT), which is part of LA Opera’s Off Grand Series, and presented in conjunction with Beth Morrison Projects, offers a spectacular dose of thrill, mystery, and grisly-inspired vitality.
Led by Composer & Co-Librettist David Lang, who is a former Pulitzer Prize winner, in addition to Director Bob McGrath, Co-Librettist & Set Designer Mark Dion, and Music Director Christopher Rountree, anatomy theater is infused by the hyper-tense inquisition into the psyche, or, rather, organs responsible for the evil perpetrated by character Sarah Osborne (portrayed hauntingly by Peabody Southwell).
The show begins with a throng of attendees standing around in the lobby area before a procession of executioners pulls Sarah Osborne along the way, whose clothes are tattered and torn, and her mind frayed. She is to be hung for the calamity of her circumstances; this woman, as we learn, by way of her public confession, who had a dreadful upbringing of abusiveness, lived out her life with a similar unfortunate wretchedness that eventually bears out unforgivable sins — murdering her husband and two children. And through it all, Osborne, because of Southwell’s fantastically frantic voice and acting, comes across as both a devil and a victim of her surroundings.
Subsequently, the man who personally administers her hanging is unmasked and revealed to be Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch), a debonair and gentlemanly rake of the grim proceedings. His charm, wit and anarchic energy, thanks to Kudisch flawlessly dissembling himself in the role, gives him the cachet to oversee the operation in the theater, where the crowd is rushed inside to observe the bodily dissection of Osborne.
The stage, superimposed by an overarching see-through mesh that illuminates projections, supplements organ shapes and medical diagrams to the syllabic harmonies of the performers and fabulous instrumentation by the wild Up ensemble. Suffice it to say, Mark Dion, Projection Designer Laurie Olinder, Lighting Designer Christopher Kuhl and Video Designer Bill Morrison deserve ample credit for the revolutionary effect-accented stage. It adds to what is a coolly dark atmosphere, reminiscent of films like Sleepy Hollow or Dark City, though with legitimately British undertones.
Of course, the pseudo doctor on hand to poetically lead the dissection of Sarah Osborne’s divested body is the wigged, 18th Century exemplification of British anatomist royalty, Baron Peel (Robert Osborne). He is joined by his assistant, Ambrose Strang (played by Timur), who does all of the moribund grunt work of pulling out the intestines, spleen, heart, and finally Osborne’s uterus for the purpose of trying to locate the root cause of her wickedness.
Robert Osborne commands a highfalutin righteousness as Peel that is tempered by his almost soothing baritone voice. From one operatic monologue to the next, Robert utilizes a temperament for his character that is ingeniously comedic one moment, ostensibly justified at another, and is at last sympathetically driven.
Timur, as Strang, wonderfully incorporates a childlike innocence into his character, bolstered by his high tenor voice, that ingratiates the audience when he realizes, even at Peel’s behest, that every uncovered organ belonging to Sarah Osborne is not only unblemished, but exemplary in look and function.
The intensely masculine Joshua Crouch, on the other hand, is not immune to being judged, even scorned, for he relishes each cut, every drop of blood emanating from Sarah’s fallen body, and all 15 instruments that are to be used in the dissection. Certainly, he is a lover of anatomy theater, almost to the extent of a debauched playfulness, as exercised by Kudisch, who makes the Crouch character as seductive as he is creepy.
And so, with the organs implicated of hereditary evil exonerated one by one, and Peel begging the audience’s pardon for another try at a causal link, Sarah Osborne is awakened to consciousness at what is transpiring to the shock of her crimson body. Undoubtedly, Southwell does a very effective job of using her urgently mezzo-soprano voice to convey Sarah’s lamentation and hysteria.
Consequently, true to historical and modern form, the human condition is more complex than anticipated and the search for answers about Sarah Osborne’s actions only leads to more questions.
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