To what standard should we hold a mad undertaking like the Coterie Theatre's Maul of the Dead?
To the raunchy burlesques of director Ron Megee's Late Night Theatre days, at which Maul hints with perverse wit, parodic dialogue and some entry-level pansexualism that sets the teenagers in the audience giggling before opening their minds toward the end, when two men loving each other is no longer played as a joke?
To George Romero's classic zombie flicks, from which Maul swipes not just a setting but also dark themes: an interest in the deadening nature of consumption and an obsession with the pettiness of human nature (especially in a crisis)?
Or to Kansas City's spectacular West Bottoms haunted-house district, where appealing to teens means daring to be a little bad?
Maul of the Dead pulses with all of these influences but contains even more. True to Romero's Dawn of the Dead, Megee and writer Mitch Brian have unleashed their first-rate brain-chompers on a shopping mall — specifically, a 1970s J.C. Penney tricked out in period shag and then fouled with corpses. (Scott Hobart designed it, and Art Kent's lighting is appropriately harsh and brooding.) Nearly two dozen zombies stagger about, groaning and biting, each effectively mangled. I especially enjoy the ballerina who lurches fetchingly in a blood-soaked tutu and the undead nun who blesses, out of dim habit, before she tries to gnaw. It's a likable, lunatic spree through horror clichés, pop-culture gags, dead-serious survival horror and enough geysering blood for the craziest church-sponsored Hell House. It's a mess, but it's great fun.
The most pleasant surprise is also the grisliest: After two years of directing Night of the Living Dead, Megee has developed a hand for violence that rivals his gift for physical comedy. These talents are not unrelated. Several man-on-zombie brawls are amusingly protracted, eliciting giggles along with the gasps. As a zombie-killing SWAT officer, Tosin Morohunfola wins laughs and whoops for several inspired bits of physical derring-do that verge on dance. The only problem when I saw the show was that sometimes there was so much going on that I wasn't sure where to look. I missed a zombie getting his hand sawed off until the moment the blood packet burst.
Meanwhile, six survivors bicker, scream and get picked off. Morohunfola and Meredith Wolfe, as a Lenexa punk rocker, make the biggest impression. Brian gives Wolfe a crackpot love story, demonstrating that he and Megee are after something more than a send-up. Her boyfriend (Cody Wyoming) toiled at Musicland, and even now, as a zombie, he shambles over to J.C. Penney to give her a Sex Pistols record. Wolfe spins it on a turntable, freaking with giddy life and energy. Later, during a zombie attack, Wyoming strikes Ramones chords on the electric guitar he wields throughout the show, still rocking after death, and the other survivors have to stop Wolfe's character from making out with him. There's meaning here: the importance of aggressive pop culture in the lives of the young and alienated. Fortunately for them, Maul of the Dead is punk as fuck.
Life's vagaries kept me from getting to the Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Palomino in good time, but I recommend it highly, especially if you crave quiet humanity in a month of zombie splatter. It's adult in all the right ways.
A drama about an Irish carriage-driver turned Manhattan gigolo, David Cale's one-man show specializes in capturing moments — the small ones that accumulate into a life and the large ones that change it. Sharing the story of Kieran and his clients, mostly aging Upper West Siders coping with what one describes as "sexual invisibility," Cale plays five major roles, male and female, straight and gay, cocksure and hemmed-in. His writing penetrates them all. And in performance, his people seem to inhabit him.
Cale (who also directs) is especially good as the women who can't believe what they've found themselves daring to do — and then can't believe how good it feels and how difficult it is not to fall, stupidly, for something impossible. The result is a rare occurrence in a culture as prim yet exploitation-hungry as ours: sex presented honestly. Cale's most affecting moment comes after Kieran pleasures a client into the first orgasm she's had in more than a decade. She thinks of her husband and the release she hadn't had with him, and then reveals with exquisite softness, "All this time I thought it was me."
See a full review here of this excellent show.