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Chris Mason as Israel/Dan in The Voyage of the Carcass
(Photo: Dan Shiffman)
Dan O'Brien's The Voyage of the Carcass, now playing at the HERE Arts Center, is a play within a play within yet another play. It begins as a farce about an amateur arctic explorer called Bane who concocts the half-witted idea of sailing to the North Pole. After Bane declares his intentions in an opening monologue, we flash forward several years into the voyage: Of his 40-person crew, only he and two of his shipmates, Kane and Israel, are still alive, marooned in the arctic ice. They're bored, they're annoyed with each other, and they're intent on eating the most recently deceased of their fellow sailors. A great deal of hijinks ensues.

Then it's time for a switch. We discover that what we have been watching was three actors--Bill (Bane), Helen (Kane), and Dan (Israel)--rehearsing a play. It turns out that Bill and Helen, who are married, have enlisted Dan's help for this project. The idea is that they are improvising action into a play; they tape record the scenes they rehearse and then Dan takes the tapes home and creates a script out of their improvisations. What we've seen thus far of "the North Pole play" is the result. But from the interactions of the three "actors," it's clear that things aren't going too well: the air conditioning is too cold, they're all having doubts about the quality of the play so far, and there's a budding attraction between Helen and Dan.

So, there you have your standard play-within-a-play. Now, here's the trippy part: According to a footnote in the program, the North Pole story began in 1998 as the group creation of Dan O'Brien and two actors, Blake Montgomery and Andra Harbold. Guess which part O'Brien played? Right: Israel, the character played by the writer (whose name is Dan!) in the play's present incarnation. So the "play rehearsal" part of The Voyage of the Carcass, in which two actors and a writer/actor are creating this play together, is based on reality.

Fortunately, director Alyse Rothman keeps this Voyage from becoming confusing, making the transitions between "the North Pole play" and "the rehearsal" very realistic--the house lights even come partially up during the latter segments. Unfortunately, Rothman also paces things too slowly; this show is kind of like Noises Off, except not as manic and not nearly as funny. In fact, Carcass is very uneven. The first 15 minutes (i.e., "the North Pole play") are downright tedious, with Bane and Kane clowning about unamusingly. It's meant to be farce, but it's not very good.

The play rehearsal bits are much more interesting. The minute the lights go up, Michael Anderson (Bane/Bill), Rebecca Harris (Kane/Helen), and Chris Mason (Israel/Dan) create a palpable tension among the trio of troubled actors. Anderson and Harris are believable as a couple trying--and mostly failing--to stay strong through financial and marital woes. Mason is especially wonderful as Dan; he exudes measured pompousness with his slow speech and deliberate body movements.

O'Brien is at his best in these sections as well, playfully mocking the pretensions of stage actors and writers; he even gets in a few really good mime jokes, and who doesn't enjoy a good mime joke? Yet O'Brien makes his characters sympathetic even while getting laughs at their expense. Bill, for example, sees this North Pole play as his last shot at success, the last gasp of an aging actor--all the more reason to feel sorry for him, since we're witnessing how terrible the play is.

Of course, that's no excuse for O'Brien not further improving the North Pole play; if it has to be bad, it could at least be comically bad. As it stands, The Voyage of the Carcass is a bad play within a good play, making it a just so-so play on the whole.

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