Brigitte Knight gives her verdict from the Wellington premiere of Indian Ink Theatre Company’s latest work.
[Cell Block Vaudeville]
Jacob Rajan returns to the stage for the world premiere of Welcome to the Murder House, a satirical black comedy spun from threads of historical fiction. Co-created with Justin Lewis, the work was commissioned by the South Coast Repertory Theatre based in Orange County. With an onstage company of eight actors and musicians, Welcome to the Murder House is the largest-scale production yet for Indian Ink.
Set in 1890s America, the play is billed as a variety show in the vaudevillian style. Brilliant original music by David Ward, adeptly performed by an onstage trio of musicians, is integral to the performance and consistently present and fused within the structure of the play. Other elements of vaudeville (dance and puppetry, for example) receive more of a cursory nod than serious integration or development. Welcome to the Murder House is a narrative work, structured within the premise of a group of death row inmates released for one night only to perform for an audience their tale of the invention of the electric chair. Buoyed by a climate of technological progress, financial ambition and emerging ideologies, the Death Commission purports humanitarian progress while serving political and financial greed in an all-to-familiar sleight of hand.
Alongside a great score (the title tune particularly memorable), Welcome to the Murder House boasts excellent, intelligent costume and set design by Elizabeth Whiting and John Verryt, respectively. The stage at Tapere Nui Te Auaha is surprisingly small and impractical, requiring carefully choreographed entrances, exits and scene changes. Management of the restrictive space was generally successful, and the various elements of timing and production technology have room to settle and smooth out during the season.
The five actors juggle a variety of characters each, moving between them with skill and energy. Quentin Warren is a magnetic performer, particularly within set choreography, and Matt Chamberlain as Alfred Southwick has the opportunity to develop his character with the most depth and dimension. Jacque Drew delivers on all fronts: she is versatile, sassy, warm and a wonderful vocalist. Jacob Rajan and Patrick Carroll also juggle several roles, and keep the comedy present – albeit with a decent serving of racial stereotyping unpinning their comic approach.
Welcome to the Murder House was warmly received by the mostly older audience, with dad jokes and gentle sexual innuendo often missing the mark for me. With just one woman in the company of eight, the trope of a woman’s anger as a source of comedy for the men was played out more than once. In spite of its historical setting, new and modern theatre can afford to challenge itself to recognise this kind of easy laugh, and push forward. Welcome to the Murder House is an entertaining package, if not quite as dark and funny as I’d hoped.
Welcome to the Murder House is presented by Indian Ink Theatre Company and plays at Tapere Nui, Te Auaha, Wellington until 10 June. An Auckland season is anticipated for 2019.