With last winter's "Manos" The Hands of Fate, theater company Last Rites Productions emerged as a hip, crowd-pleasing new ensemble with a spoofy, goofy comedic sensibility. "Manos," based on a horror film that is often considered one of the worst ever made, became a minor cult phenomenon, filling a surprising number of seats in its late-night spot at Theater! Theatre!
With their new production, The Brain That Wouldn't Die!, Last Rites employs many of the same gimmicks that made "Manos" so much fun; it is, in fact, virtually impossible not to compare the two shows. Brain is also a remake of a classically bad horror film (both were featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000), with a distinctly campy tone to both the acting and direction. They feature many of the same cast members, and the same producer/director duo of Brian Koch and Ryan Cloutier.
As much as the works have in common, there are key differences as well, foremost among them being that Brain actually looks like a real play. Last Rites has their own performance space this time, at the Miracle Theatre ("Manos" took place on the set of an entirely different production), and both the set and costumes are considerably more substantial. Regrettably absent is local band Blitzen Trapper, who provided the music for "Manos."
Brain follows the mishaps of Dr. Bill Cortner (T. Austin Sabel), a mad scientist-type who is working on techniques to graft body parts from one human onto another. When his girlfriend Jan (Sabra Choi) is decapitated in a car crash, Cortner rescues her head, keeping it alive until he can find a body to reattach it to. He begins cruising strip clubs, looking for the perfect body for his girlfriend's head; when he finds an unsuspecting victim (Gwen Lahti), he lures her back to his cabin to perform the surgery. Only problem is, Jan doesn't want a new body; Jan just wants to die, and maybe to kill Cortner before she goes. All of this is complicated further by a horrible monster kept locked away in Cortner's laboratory, and by Cortner's deformed assistant Kurt (Koch), who manages to do more harm than good to Cortner's experiment.
Standouts here are Sabel, copping a suave bedside manner as the handsome yet corrupt Cortner, and Choi as Jan, who spends most of the play with her "decapitated" head resting on a table, yet manages to convey a remarkable amount with facial expressions alone.
Like many a sophomore effort, Brain's success isn't quite as unqualified as that of its predecessor: While more substantial in some regards, the fly-by-night qualities that made "Manos" particularly charming have disappeared. There is a sense, too, that given more resources, the Last Rites crew isn't exactly sure how best to use them. Brain treads on audience patience a bit—some of the comedic gimmicks lose their charm through repetition, and an opening skit called "Operation" should've been cut entirely. But Brain is still an entertaining evening at the theater, noteworthy for the gleeful energy with which it reaches out to non-traditional theater-going audiences.
I spoke with director and Last Rites co-founder Brian Koch via email about "Manos" and The Brain That Wouldn't Die! Koch told me that he chose to adapt "Manos," while artistic director and producer Ryan Cloutier selected The Brain That Wouldn't Die! Koch maintained that it's a coincidence that both scripts are horror spoofs, and that both of the original films were treated by Mystery Science Theater 3000; it's undeniable, though, that both productions were shaped by a similar comedic sensibility. When asked about comedy, Koch says his sense of humor has been "warped in some ways that are intractable, even incurable." He points to Monty Python as the most significant of his corrupting influences: "At the age of 14... I was introduced to Monty Python. It changed me. You can't go on living as though you haven't seen it." Koch copped to being one of those annoying, Monty Python-quoting kids in high school, but his successes with Last Rites may be proof that comedic obsessiveness pays off. "Manos" and The Brain That Wouldn't Die! adhere to the mission statement on the Last Rites website: making theater that is "interesting, fun, and exciting, and not stuffy, over-produced, or... you know... boring." There is still work to be done, but I hope that Last Rites sticks around and does it—because if there's one thing this town lacks, it's accessible, affordable, audience friendly theater.