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What's a Little Death?

Caroline Reck in What's a Little Death?

By Bret McCabe | Posted 9/10/2008

What's a Little Death?

Play and lyrics by Juanita Rockwell, music and sound by Chas Marsh

At Theatre Project through Sept. 14

Four corpses greet you when you enter the almost barren stage setup for What's a Little Death?, the debut production from the new Baltimore theater company 3 Hands Clapping. They're arrayed in a disheveled stretch between a low bench and a burial plot, like clothing peeled off en route to bed after coming home at 3 a.m. A cross leans like an old water tower at backstage left, another bench a few feet in front of it. And the bodies lie there, as if passed out, until a sooty female gravedigger (Caroline Reck)--the shovel gives it away--walks onstage, looking like a chimney sweep wandering from work to a moonlighting gig as a Sweeney Todd supernumerary, and pulls the bodies to four different parts of the stage. And just to make sure you know they're dead, they admit it, after a tolling of bells animates them with a sudden rush of air, and they crawl into their former bipedal selves muttering "dead," which becomes a four-party harmony of rhythmic song.

Death is a witty stripe of musical theater, a demitasse musical for five players, one set, and a graduate humanities seminar's worth of metafictional asides, allusions, and philosophical discussion. The 3 Hands co-founders--Juanita Rockwell (who teaches in Towson University's theater arts department), composer/sound designer Chas Marsh (who plays with Anne Watts and Boister), and Death director Leslie Felbain (who teaches theater at the University of Maryland)--have gamely stitched together an underworld among the living that riffs on theater and politics. The four corpses bear a curious resemblance to the dead in Hamlet: a prince, Sonny (Jomar Tagatac); his mother, Lady (Colleen Harris), who wed her husband's brother after his death; a young maiden named Wet One (Natalie Handel), who drowns; and her brother the soldier, Buddy (Joseph W. Ritsch), who was felled by the same poison blade that claimed Sonny. And they're all stuck as the walking dead as the ground, where they should be lain, is already too full with bodies thanks to an endless war.

This deadpan, macabre setup plops these talking corpses, as headstrong and selfish as they were when alive, in a Jean Anouilh-like limbo between life and an idealized afterlife, their discussions riddled with absurdist theater wordplay--and delivered in blank verse--and the musical numbers resembling slightly bawdy tunes from the British stage (a jocose Gilbert and Sullivan-esuqe singsong number is a real hoot). But this game setup goes nowhere, as all the allusions and intelligence never quite gels into a compelling story. The play sags under the weight of the script's knowingness, treading water in spurts of verbal cleverness and the seamless musical interludes (the entire cast sings well, but Harris really stands out). And in the end the What's a Little Death? feels as mundanely insubstantial as its title suggests.

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