Faster than you can say "Slaughterhouse on Tanner's Close," Burke and Hare have killed again. Based on a real-life series of grave-robbings and murders in 1928 Edinburgh, Daniel O'Connor's lurid and lavishly assembled tale of morality, mortality and medical experimentation had its premiere last fall at the Pacific Theatre Ensemble. On Thursday it reopens at Stages.
"The story is set at a time when medical advancements were really at a standstill," explained the playwright/director. "Dr. Knox is a research scientist who needs bodies to teach his students the next ways of surgery. At the same time, 'resurrectionists' are stealing bodies from the sacred grounds of the cemetery and selling them to the doctors. These two gentlemen--I use the term loosely--decide they can get a quicker way out of the slums by luring people into their hostelry and snuffing them out."
Then the killings get out of control--and soon anybody is fair game.
"It becomes their drug," O'Connor nodded. "They become addicted to murder, what the murder can buy." And Dr. Knox, grateful for the influx of bodies, pays the men and asks no questions. Certainly not a sterling portrait of humanity.
Although he admits to an emotional "stamp" on his material, O'Connor remains neutral in the theatrical telling--and leaves audiences to their own responses: "People get what they want out of it. It's wild to watch audiences watch people getting killed on stage. Some people laugh, some get terrorized, some watch it in fascination. If you as the audience are getting off on these things, that's something you should look at."
Just as he poses unsettling questions to audiences, the Palos Verdes native (who relocated here from New York last summer) feels the responsibility to immerse himself in the same darkness.
"When my father first saw this play, it was like, 'Where are the musical numbers? Do you have to have so much death in it?' " O'Connor smiled. "That's what this story is about. There are no heroes. There are only villains. And writing it, I had to find that ugly side within me--we all have it. But going into that dark side, we also find the light. So I go in and exorcise my devils or my angels. Each time I write or direct a play, I try to find a subject that I'm having trouble with in my own life."
In that vein, he's written "Intimate Lies" about "betrayal, cheating, the whole sexual thing. It made me come to terms with my sexuality." And "Another Coming" (which O'Connor mounted with his former New York group, 29th Street) was prompted by a need to understand the "very born-again" conversion of a high school pal. Fundamentalism no longer confounds--or troubles--him. "It's just different paths, different lessons. It's all going to get us to the same place. And there's no hurry. We have all the time in the world."
Time is something O'Connor clearly relishes. "Six more weeks," he says reverently of the new run. "Six weeks to keep working on this play, working with this group of actors--and hoping that someone comes in and says, 'This is a nice piece of theater; let's move it to the next notch.' I can't wait to get to a place where the actors are paid--or where I have a stage manager who isn't working at MGM in the script department all day, then has to run over here. Oh, to get an actor eight hours a day, six days a week! That's what this is buying me: the chance to go on to the next step."
Come what may, O'Connor couldn't be happier in Los Angeles.
"I never intended to come back," he admitted. "But the loft I was living in was sold. And theatrically speaking, New York is dead for me. People don't take risks anymore. It's a cash-and-carry business. You pay your money and get the 'Starlight Express' experience, an E ticket on a Disneyland ride. That's all it is. Also, no one returns your calls or letters. Here, even people who haven't been interested have called back. Everyone has been so kind. Everyone wants people to succeed. It's a lovely camaraderie."