"Well, you don’t see something like that every day." That was my reaction immediately after watching The Unrepentant Necrophile, the latest offering from The Coldharts, a Brooklyn-based theatre company whose previous Cincy Fringe entries (The Legend of White Woman Creek and Edgar Allen) were among the most memorable productions of the 2014 and 2015 festivals. This show, perhaps even more than its predecessors, doesn’t lend itself to easy description; it’s loosely based on the true story of Karen Greenlee, a California morgue worker in the late ’70s who admitted to finding sexual satisfaction with dozens of corpses. Oddly, her eventual prosecution was not for necrophilia (which amazingly wasn’t illegal in California at the time), but for stealing a hearse and “interfering with a funeral,” when she stole a body and took it on a road trip, so to speak. And did I mention that this is a musical?
Katie Hartman portrays this central character as an intense, self-absorbed rocker, playing a fuzz-tone electric guitar while singing songs that underscore her unwholesome desires (the opening number: “I’m Not Sorry”). Coldharts co-founder Nick Ryan plays an ill-fated coworker (while doubling on electric bass) and Nate Gebhard not only plays the drums, but also serves as the primary centerpiece for Greenlee’s urges. Other than the musical instruments, the only set pieces are a coroner’s table, a few portable clip lights and an industrial overhead lamp, which hangs over the center of the stage. Throughout the show, Hartman reconfigures these pieces and the instruments in creative and unexpected ways, suggesting different situations, physical locations and mortuary equipment, allowing for some startling images. (One in particular — Hartman straddling Gebhard and swinging the overhead lamp as she sings – is stunning.)
So what does it mean? On one level, it’s nothing more (and nothing less) than a standard Rock musical, albeit with decidedly untraditional source material. On another level, it’s a commentary on the mysterious nature of desire, using an extreme example to make the point that it’s a personal thing, not explainable in general terms. Either way, the emotional and physical commitment of the three performers is incredible; for better or worse, we accept Hartman as this bizarre, unsavory character, singing one Rock anthem after another as she bared her twisted soul.
The opening performance was not perfect; there were sound balance issues (Hartman’s guitar in particular was too loud, and some of the complex scenic shifts were a bit messy, perhaps due to it being the opening night). Additionally, while there were a few moments of humor (which the audience admittedly needed), I found myself wishing there’d been none, almost as if they’d let us off the hook.
Nevertheless, The Unrepentant Necrophile is as unapologetic a piece of theater as I’ve ever seen. It takes a true story and tells it in an amazingly unique way, without commenting on its admittedly difficult subject matter. It’s the reason that Fringe festivals exist. Don’t miss it.