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In Performance: Anatomy Theater (Prototype 2017)

Anatomy Theater (Prototype 2017)
New York City Premiere
January 7, 8 and 10-14 at 8 PM
Composer: David Lang
Librettists: Mark Dion & David Lang
Director: Bob McGrath
Conductor: Christopher Rountree

It is sometime in the nineteenth century, somewhere in the western hemisphere. Upon entering the theater I am declared a “surgeon” and led to a lantern-lit holding room where other so-called surgeons and I are served hot sausages (vegetarian options available) and cold beer in aluminum steins. “You don’t want to attend a hanging on an empty stomach!” quips the woman in period dress who slathers mustard on my veggie dog. The surgeons mingle. A drum sounds a militaristic beat and from the dust there appears a hulking, hooded male figure. He violently drags a woman in rags through the crowd. We follow en masse towards the gallows. Cries of “hang the bitch!” ring through the air.

So begins Anatomy Theater, the macabre new opera by David Lang and Mark Dion, and the theatrics have only just begun. Once we are settled in our seats, we are fully transported back to a dark era where the bodies of criminals were dissected post-mortem for ticket-buying audiences, all in search of a medical explanation for evil deeds. Gleefully gruesome, bloody staging combined with a haunting score and dynamic shadowed lighting design make for an engrossing and truly grotesque experience, no small feat.

But the real praise for Anatomy Theater must go to Peabody Southwell, the earthy mezzo-soprano who, as murderess Sarah Osborne, begins the event with a stunning and gritty aria explaining her murder of husband and child as a result of a life of rape, abuse, and forced prostitution. Following her hanging, the actress endures said dissection lying stark naked and angelically still under stage lights for a solid hour. What’s more, the male characters around her throw slews of violent language towards her (“it’s a discarded husk” is one of many possible examples), with more than one evening’s share of suggestions that were we not all here in the audience, they might take advantage of her still-warm deceased body. Would that these characters–who ask so nobly “Where is evil?” as they dig through her flesh–had heard Sarah Osborne in the beginning of the show when she so lucidly explained the slew of horrors inflicted on her during life. Peabody Southwell, I raise my veggie dog to you.

Photo by James Matthew Daniel

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