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Nowadays medical students, researchers, and hobbyists can buy cadavers in bulk from Sam’s Club or order them from Amazon, but in the 1880s, dead bodies for science were more difficult to come by. Med school staff or enterprising pupils paid up to $25 per stiff—about $600 in 2011 dollars—to “resurrectionists” who snuck into cemeteries, bashed open coffins, and tugged the freshly dead back topside by way of a hook fished into the jaw. The work required powerful quads and a strong stomach, but only a moderate tolerance for risk: Body-snatching wasn’t outlawed in D.C. until the 1890s, so practitioners of the grim trade were often charged only with minor offenses like trespassing, or, if they failed to leave the deceased’s clothes behind, theft.
A sensationalizing press helped a few graverobbers acquire outsized reputations, Bonnie and Clyde-style; indeed, it was a 2005 Washington City Paper story by Michael Little that inspired D.C. dramatist Stephen Spotswood’s The Resurrectionist King. The work is a fictionalized account of the doomed attempt by one such widely hyped body-repo-man, Vigo Jansen, to launch a second career regaling audiences with recreations of his macabre exploits. According to a review in The Washington Post of Jansen’s debut at the long-demolished Theatre Comique in May of 1884, Jansen was drunk and the “corpse” he’d brought to demonstrate his mad exhumation skillz on wouldn’t keep quiet. There was no second show, and Jansen killed himself in New York City three years later.
Active Cultures’ world-premiere production—and can we just say that’s a really unfortunate name for a theater company, you guys—is significantly better than that, even if one can’t quite shake the feeling there’s a more exciting, less predictable evening yet to be harvested from such nutrient-rich material. Spotwood opts for a real(ish)-time scenario detailing the hours immediately preceding Jansen’s Courtney Love-at-the-9:30-Club moment, a choice that comes with some over-ripe character types, like the harried but devoted stage manager. (On the plus side, she’s played with ample pluck and charm by Rachel Manteuffel.) Evan Crump imbues Jansen with a persuasive mix of exhibitionism and self-loathing (and a Slavic accent, though the dude was born in Denmark) while Dexter Hamlett is easy to like as the Comique’s aging manager, who’s appalled at the ghoulish traffic Jansen and his associate Dr. Crow (Jeremy Lister) propose for his stage. As a mystery woman who’ll become key to the show’s consideration of dignity versus science, Megan Reichelt brings a real emotional weight to what could have been a farce.
Spotswood has a slight tendency to overseason the stew: A late revelation from Manteuffel’s character feels like one too many, but it’s hardly a hanging offense. Director Tom Prewitt appears to have spent his budget on costumes (by Jenny Bernson) rather than on the skeletal set—a smart choice, given that the play ultimately asks how much of ourselves resides in our injury-prone, fast-decaying meatsuits. All in all, it’s an intriguing if imperfect beginning, and I’d welcome a subsequent production with a little more meat on its sturdy bones.