Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fringe ’09: The Doctor and the Devils

Just like London had Jack the Ripper, Edinburgh had Burke and Hare. Technically, they were grave-robbers, but the higher compensation paid for fresh bodies created obvious homicidal incentives. While it could not be more different in tone from his better known works (like A Child’s Christmas in Wales), their story would inspire The Doctor and the Devils, Dylan Thomas’s play originally conceived for the screen, which the Rag ‘N Bone Theatre Company has revived during this year’s FringeNYC.

Burke and Hare, whom Thomas renames Fallon and Broom, still sell corpses to the good Dr. Rock (in place of the historical Dr. Robert Knox), with no questions asked. After all, their victims are riff-raff, whose disappearance (and eventual dissection) is unlikely to raise much concern. However, despite the rigid social structures of the time, Rock’s apprentice, Mr. Murray, is somewhat familiar with their world through his relationship with the prostitute Jennie Bailey, which leads to complications.

Doctor is uncharacteristic of Thomas’s oeuvre, focusing on the desperate living conditions faced by the notorious resurrectionists. Yet, while there might be clear social implications to Thomas’s play, the tenor of Rag ‘N Bone’s production is far more surreal than naturalistic. Daniel Balkin’s adaption and direction often evokes the feeling of a fever dream through montage-like sequences of murdering, grave-robbing, drunkenness, and Rock’s zealous university lectures. Particularly eerie is his use of Thomas’s morbid nursery rhyme: “Fallon and Broom sell bones and meat, Fallon’s the butcher, Broom’s the thief, And Rock’s the boy who buys the beef.”

At times the staging is so stylized it keeps the audience somewhat emotionally removed from the characters on stage. However, Abdel Gonzalez, looking much like a hulking Ron Perlman, gives a remarkable performance humanizing the fearsome Fallon, showing the vulnerable man buried inside the monster. Likewise, Madeline Blue (whose credits include The Sopranos) brings vitality and likability to the ill-fated Jennie Bailey.

Doctor is a philosophical production, where the classic question whether the end justifies the means is debated from several perspectives. In his hubris, Rock’s end is no less than the salvation of mankind through medical research. For Fallon, Broom, and their social circle, the end goal is mere economic survival.

Technically well-mounted, Doctor uses its sparse set and moody lighting quite effectively. Though the accompanying music is often jarringly contemporary, it still contributes to the unsettling atmosphere. Thoughtful and macabre, it is certainly a distinctive night of theater. It runs through Sunday at Milagro Theatre as part of Fringe Festival.