Directed by Ernie Nolan
Produced by Cor Theatre, Chicago
A Grisly Story From a Dark Time
What to do today with In-Yer-Face theatre, a genre from the 1990s which shocked mainstream audiences with frank depictions of loveless sex, violence, and often a homoerotic mixture of the two? Is it still shocking? And if not, is there something else in it that makes watching people be nasty to each other satisfying? Cor Theatre, a young company founded to showcase stories about “exploring the hidden hero within us all,” was determined to find out. The result, Brad Fraser’s Love and Human Remains, originally known as Unidentified Human Remains and the Nature of True Love, is interesting from more than just a historical perspective, and fills the stage with the sort of happenings you still don’t see on it very often. It’s too long, but if the likes of Fraser, Mark Ravenhill, and Sarah Kane passed you by the first time or you’ve a hankering for more, this play is a rare opportunity to experience their style.
However, despite Cor’s mission statement, the main characters, David (Andrew Goetten) and Candy (Kate Black-Spence), are not very heroic. They are roommates and former lovers, but David is gay, and Candy isn’t sure what she wants. So, Candy leads on a bartender, Robert (Eric Staves), and a lesbian from the gym, Jerri (Lauren Sivak) simultaneously, figuring she’ll eventually pick one and discard the other. David, meanwhile, hits on the teenage busboy Kane (Ethan Warren), who is confused about his sexuality, and consequently sends mixed signals. David also has a bromance with his straight friend Bernie (Sam Guinan-Nyhart), who has a habit of cheating on his wife and spending the night at David’s after getting in fights.
In the background of all these heartbreaks, there is a serial killer on the loose. Another of David’s friends, Benita (Tosha Fowler), is a dominatrix with a taste for horror stories, and is psychically sensitive. David sometimes visits her to get readings on people, or perform in her entertainments. She introduces Kane to heroin, which David told him was cocaine, and takes advantage of him sexually. Meanwhile, Jerri and Robert are both becoming more possessive of Candy, and develop a habit of entering her apartment uninvited. While Candy and David normally rely on each other, Candy has held a deep antipathy toward Bernie ever since she believes he drove her friend, his girlfriend, to suicide, and she resents David for enjoying his company so much. Bernie is who David is really in love with, though he is, of course, unresponsive to David’s sexual advances, mostly, but as Bernie’s sexual sadism becomes more apparent and disruptive, Candy suspects that he is really the serial killer.
It’s dark stuff, although alleviated by Benita telling her favorite psycho-stories in between scenes. Fraser also peppered his script with characters who are not in the scene reciting poetry to the audience, which uses vulgar terms to describe power and bodies. Director Ernie Nolan handled these moments with clarity, and created a strong sense of tension in the scenes in which there is the greatest threat of violence. However, I was merely impatient with Candy’s irresponsible handling of her relationships, and David’s extremely risky anonymous hook-ups (remember, In-Yer-Face theatre was in part a product of AIDS). A sound effect of a woman screaming used several times in the show is the aural equivalent of a jump scare, but Claire Chrzan’s club-inspired lighting design sets the mood well, and Nick Sandys provides his always thrilling fight choreography.
Fowler’s Benita, whose age is often commented on, is vivacious and funny, but frighteningly blasé about brutality. Guinan-Nyhart is at the opposite end of the spectrum, playing a character who is younger, but nearly always hung-over and whining. Sivak and Staves, as mostly unwitting rivals, are realistically desperate and clingy, especially Sivak as Jerri, while Warren’s Kane is feckless and confused. Fine acting all around. Our leading characters become steadily less likeable: Candy refuses to return Jerri’s messages even to formally break up, in hopes that Jerri will eventually become so angry she will no longer desire the relationship. David at least realizes that pining for a teenager is ridiculous, but is still in love with a straight guy who is probably unhinged. Goetten and Black-Spence’s acting makes clear that these characters are more pathetic and immature than malicious, but the results of their actions are the same.
Cor’s production is done well; the question is simply whether you like a kind of storytelling that was created to be abrasive. Using a serial killer as a metaphor for the way people tear apart each other’s hearts is obviously hyperbolic, but on a literal level, this plotline provides the play with some welcome action sequences late in the story. The play also seems to have been updated somewhat, with characters using cell phones to send text messages, and so forth. However, the massive societal changes that have taken place since this play was written have made the things In-Yer-Face theatre shoves in your face no longer as current, resulting in Love and Human Remains becoming more of a horror story in a dark fantasy world than a commentary on contemporary gay life. Nonetheless, there are still people it may be valid for, particularly in its depiction of harmful friendships, and the horror elements are a sick little twist to keep things interesting.
Reviewed June 7, 2015
For more information, see Love and Human Remains’ page on Theatre in Chicago.
Produced at Rivendell Theatre, 5779 N Ridge Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $25, with discounts for students and industry; to order, call 866-811-8411. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 5:00 pm through July 11, with performances on select Mondays and Wednesdays. Running time is two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission. This production contains explicit violence and sex, and flashing lights.