The Coterie's scare tactics work.

A Graveyard Smash 

The Coterie's scare tactics work.

When critics say a movie has been written "by committee," it is not a compliment. The implication is that too many cooks spoil the broth -- there's no single voice or vision, so a directionless journey unfolds. But in the case of The Coterie Theatre's season premiere, Gatherings in Graveyards, which "was developed in a workshop collaboration with the director, designers, and actors," everyone seems to have found a singular goal. They've created a wholly theatrical product from three separate tales.

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" opens the show with a bloodthirsty breath of menace. Robert Gibby Brand stands stage center in a straitjacket, having been institutionalized for killing an old man (George Forbes) for purely selfish and aesthetic reasons. The disfigured victim had a "vulture eye" that protruded from a mound of scar tissue, and it made Brand's foppish character sick to his stomach. He decided to kill the guy just so he could face the day without being offended by the sight of something flawed and hideous. He's the personification of what city planners do when the Olympics or political conventions come to town: round up the dirty and disheveled and hide them away. Out of sight, out of mind -- but Brand soon becomes haunted by his act of euthanasia and his conscience wins out over his impulses.

Round two is W.W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw." A family of meager means (Brand, Cheryl Weaver, and Jonathan Young respectively as the father, the mother, and the son) is visited by a Sergeant Morris (Forbes) in possession of a grotesque talisman: a severed monkey's paw that grants three wishes. Though the father laughs it off, he says as a joke that he wants $500. The son goes off to his factory job, and mom and dad go to bed none the wiser. The next morning, this first wish is granted albeit accompanying horrible news. Wishes two and three come true in a swift denouement that sends chills up the spine.

Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" finishes the play in a 10-minute rush of destiny, hope, and tragedy. A soldier is about to be hanged when he pulls a Houdini-like trick and plunges into the creek free of his noose. He escapes his persecutors' bullets and sees his wife's open arms -- or so it seems, until the story's final jolt.

The design team entrusted with these mini-masterpieces of horror has done its homework. Vaughn Schultz peppers the stage with headstones and macabre statuary that, under Art Kent's artful lighting, seem to be perspiring blood. In one tour-de-force during "The Tell-Tale Heart," the gravestones turn into chairs, under which lie the victim's dismembered remains. Schultz also crafted eerie puppets that are 8 feet tall and crowned with skinny, elongated skulls. They're really actors brilliantly disguised, turning the set rotation between the stories into the play's scariest moments and sending an 8-year-old girl in front of me into her father's lap every time they appeared.

David Kiehl's sound design could have been as banal as a scary sound-effects record. There are the requisite creaks, but he's added industrial music that sounds as if it's being played backwards (I was waiting to discern "I buried Paul") and a determined heartbeat that literally rocks the floor. In the last scene, he and Kent create an underwater ballet that is a complete optical illusion. Georgianna Londre's costumes are a mix of upper-crust finery for certain characters, down-at-their-heels rags for others, and, for Weaver in the prologue and epilogue, a salute to Stevie Nicks.

One minor annoyance prevents the acting from being uniformly profound. In "The Monkey's Paw," Forbes affects some kind of Jamaican or Creole accent that loses some of his lines. Otherwise, there's a lot of fun to be had in the same tale, watching Weaver go from a sweet and common mother to a tortured soul, or Brand assert the violent whims of a dandy.

New York state of mind: Word from the theater capital of the country places three former Kansas Citians in very good company. Don Richard is in rehearsal for Jane Eyre, with which he has toured since a workshop version in Wichita three years ago. He reports that he was in the studio last week recording the cast album, which should be released prior to its early December opening night. Brian Barnhart, a Kansas City Drama Desk winner for Angels in America, will appear in the Axis Theatre production of Crave, by the playwright Sarah Kane, who committed suicide last year at the age of 28. One of Barnhart's costars in the four-person company is Blondie chanteuse Deborah Harry. And Jason Daniely is probably at the gym a couple of hours a day given his current gig: the musical version of The Full Monty.


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