It is impossible to deny that the supernatural world goes through fads. Just a few years ago, it was impossible to walk out of the door without tripping over the latest vampire or werewolf thriller. These days, however, zombies seem to be decomposing in every theater and home across America. With the release of Warm Bodies just a few short weeks ago, the overwhelming popularity of The Walking Dead and the upcoming World War Z, it was all but guaranteed that Cornell’s theater department would jump on the zombie train. Mr. Matthews’ Magic Morgue, written by Trevor Stankiewicz ’15 and directed by Sarah Byrne ’15, however, doesn’t quite follow the cliché modern sway of the zombie industry.
Alec Matthews (Oliver Viera ’15) opens the show with his magic act and eerily declares to the audience, “As time has passed, the smoke has lifted, the mirror has cracked,” preluding his performance. The plot rushes along for the first few scenes, and it is ambiguous how much time passes. Alec becomes engaged to his girlfriend Lily Summers (Catherine Rieflin ’15). His sister Natalie (Sue-Jean Sung ’15) lauds a “new secret invention,” and his mother Carol (Kimberly Laura Dyckman) is killed in a horrible “accident” during one of Alec’s magic shows. The final event is a major blow to Alec’s psyche — he is unable to perform his tricks and gets fired from his show.
Frank Matthews (Mark Whitmore), sick of comparing his brilliant scientist daughter to his failed magician son, forces Alec to join him and work at the morgue. Here, the pacing finally slows down enough for us to meet morgue worker Teddy Winkler, portrayed by none other than the author of the play, Stankiewicz. Teddy’s character is absolutely hysterical. The lyrics to “Welcome to the Morgue” had everyone in the Risley laughing — including the actor himself. Teddy’s only friends are the corpses: During the song, he forms a special bond with a particular body that recently died of cardiac arrest, Victor Shingles (like on a roof, or adult chicken pox). Meanwhile, Alec, who confuses his magic wand with the baton his sister invented to stimulate brain activity in coma patients, touches each of the corpses in the morgue, which quickly come to life. These scenes at the morgue contain all of the hilarity and sparkle that the play had the potential to reach.
Teddy urges his newly animated “best friend” Victor Shingles (Chris Liendo ’15) to make a break for freedom, and Victor returns to his former home where he was ex-magician Vladimir Tingles’ (Rudy Gerson ’14) butler. Vlad, Alec’s idol, just happens to be the man who orchestrated the plot to kill his mother Carol and destroy Alec’s career. In exchange for their deepest desires: fame, love and the safety of their family members, the Matthews’ agree to give Vlad the life-giving baton. Nat is imprisoned in Vlad’s house (which no one really notices …) as Alec and his father rush to the morgue to resurrect Carol (which for some reason they never thought of doing when they were in sole possession of the baton). At first, Carol is just as she was — the mother and wife they knew and loved. However, as time draws on, all of the zombies start to change. The zombies develop cannibalistic tendencies, and in a rather amusing reference to an older viral youtube video, Victor tries to eat Teddy’s finger, causing all of the actors to suddenly develop English accents and exclaim:
“Victor bit my finger!”
“Did it hurt?”
“It really hurt!”
The newly repaired happy life at home falls apart as well, Carol loses more emotion and memory every minute. The comedy was excellent in these scenes — perhaps too good, in fact, for such a small theater. Frank Matthews’ lines brought everyone in the theater to tears of laughter, “We had fast food. I had Wendy’s, your mother had a squirrel.” It was quite some time before even the actors could revert to serious tones. A few of the actors forgot props during major dramatic moments which led to some amusing improv that threw the actors off and even led to some of the “disanimated” corpses shaking with dead laughter.
The final confrontation between Alec and Vlad was rife with moral decisions and confusing deaths, but the play ended sweetly and happily overall. A few logistical points bothered me during the show, mostly the lack of a clear timeline. I had to spend too much energy trying to figure out how a 20 to 30 year-old man could have seen a famous magician in his prime if said magician’s prime was 50 years ago. The time passing during the performance threw me off also. The play would have been much more enjoyable if I wasn’t left wondering about little details like these.
It is difficult to hit pacing and spacing directly on the head. Several scenes within this show, however, got it right. The scenes surrounding the first reanimation of the corpses came off beautifully and with the perfect comedy to drama ratio. But the beginning felt rushed, and by the end, the actors were playing off the audience too much and nothing felt scripted or serious. By this point everything, even moments that had to potential to be truly poignant, felt awkward.
Many of the songs were excellently written, the lyrics by Stankiewicz and the music by Peter Arriaza and Sung. They were highly amusing, clever and sweet, with each of the actors lending an excellent voice.
Mr. Matthews’ Magic Morgue really has the potential to be something great, and with a little tweaking and prodding, it could move beyond a laugh-a-minute play for friends, and into something really and truly clever.