“One Death, Please” a Darkly Comic Indictment

HIGHLAND ­— Seeing a new work on stage can be a gamble; there are benefits, in that you might discover a wonderful new surprise, or at least a diamond in the rough, something with promise but not completely polished. But you can also be disappointed. I found the Equinox Theatre production producing the world premiere of local playwright Christian Munck’s One Death, Please to be interesting and enjoyable, pleasantly surprising, but not perfect. 

The play is built on an interesting and clever scenario: a pop start who is losing favor with the public wants to die, but make it look like a tragic accident so that her popularity will skyrocket. She knows that “the media enjoys shoving a good celebrity death in our faces,” and doesn’t seem to mind that she won’t be around to enjoy her renewed stardom. But things get more complicated when she discovers that the brother and sister who are going to help her die are cannibals, and are willing to help in exchange for a tasty meal. Throughout the play, Munck uses very dark, harsh, and biting (pun intended) comedy to indict the media’s obsessions with fame and scandal. But he also goes further, pointing out that we are all to blame, and seems to suggest that cannibalism isn’t that different from what we all do to each other and our celebrities. The comedy of the first act is good – it is merciless, and pushes the comfort level of everyone watching, as good dark comedy should. The second act focuses less on the comic, delivering some more serious messages directly. While this does work reasonably well, I found myself wishing that Munck had kept up the uncomfortable level of comedy of the first act all the way through.  I also liked the bits where the character “Media” became involved, I could have used more of that. 

Director Patrick Brownson does not hold back on this one – there is disturbing drug use, bewildering superficiality, and hilarious discussions of cannibalism, but all fit in the dark comedy genre well. The first act works well because it makes us uncomfortable, but we can still laugh. Each of the characters has things to like about them and things to make us a bit queasy, which is a nice balance. Both acts open with a montage of three scenes, which set the stage for what is to come nicely. 

Julie Kaye Wolf is likable, believable, and edgy as Erin, going over the top on some of the comedy, but staying surprisingly sympathetic. As the action culminates, Wolf goes all in, building up the intensity really well. Seth Dhonau is her brother Daniel, charming and sincere, probably the most sympathetic and real character, but without a lot of opportunity for comedy.  As the pop star Olive, Emily Ebertz is ditsy and shallow, almost frightening in the sincerity of her death wish. Toward the end, Ebertz also transforms into a heroine that we can cheer for, finally able to survive the criticism directed at her. Kenneth Stellingwerf is intense as Loren, also drawing sympathy as he tries to help Olive and himself. Veronica Straight-Lingo plays Media, hitting the two celebrities she impersonates well, but also getting appropriately nastier and more intense towards the end. Mike Moran is funny and more than a little creepy as Chuckles. Moran captures the physicality of an addict disturbingly well, and pairs that with comedy unexpectedly effectively.

The set for One Death, Please, designed by Colin Roybal, is somewhat black-box-generic, with a revolving section to provide the three different interiors. The sparseness of the set does fit the style of the production but looked a bit unpolished. Roybal’s lighting is effective, adding nice texture from patterns, and with good control for the different areas. Lisa Young’s costumes are fun, going extreme for Olive, and appropriate for the others.

One Death, Please is a good new play, very funny at times, interesting and entertaining, unabashedly an indictment of the media and of the society that supports and feeds off that media. When Erin, referring to the drug addicts and losers that she has been consuming, says “The world had already reduced them to nothing – I just finished the job,” it is easy to see her as not much different than the rest of us. I think the play would be stronger and more compelling if the dark, scathing comedy pushed us even further out of our comfort zone all the way through. But still, as it is, it will make you laugh, squirm a bit, and think.  

If you go…

One Death, Please will be performed Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 through December 3, at the Bug Theatre, located at 3654 Navajo in Northwest Denver.  There is an additional “pay-what-you-can industry night” performance on Thursday, December 1. Tickets are $ 15 in advance, $ 20 at the door, discounted to $ 13 each for groups of six or more (advance sale only).  To purchase tickets, call (720) 984-0781 or visit www.equinoxtheatredenver.com. Equinox has announced their Ninth Season for 2017, which opens January 13 with The Who’s Tommy, followed by Stage Kiss in March, then The Rocky Horror Show, Thrill Me: The Leopold and Loeb Story, and ending with Disaster!. One Death, Please includes strong language (and cannibalism) that some may find offensive.

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