“Cannibals Alone” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

Okay, the bad news right up front: no one eats anyone in Cannibals Alone. Which was a real disappointment. Not because I’m particularly bloodthirsty, but because I was really looking forward to seeing how cannibalism would be done onstage. On TV or in the movies, sure – but a real live version of Santa Clarita Diet on the tiny Belfry Stage in NoHo? Now that I was looking forward to!

The good news is that if you’re a fan of mayhem, chaos, violence, gunshots, torture by cigarette lighter, knives to throats, and characters manhandling each other – actually, since it’s an all-female cast, I suppose it should be womanhandling each other – Cannibals Alone is for you. So there’s no flesh-eating? Feh!

The play opens with a bang. Rae (Courtney Sara Bell) is discovered asleep on the couch. On the coffee table in front of it is a Monopoly board – apparently a game was in progress – and a gun. The door opens slowly, and Mags (Heather Lynn Smith) quietly enters, tiptoes over to the couch, and does a classic “Surprise!” wakeup routine.

Unlike most people, who might wake up a little angry at being disturbed, Rae wakes up in a blind thundering rage, grabbing her gun and Mags at the same time. The two women thrash about the room, upending tables, sending potted plants (and their dirt) flying, shoving the large couch into a wall. When the fighting stops, Rae is pointing the gun at Mags, who turns out to be… her best friend, roommate, partner in crime, and (possibly) her lover.

Heather Lynn Smith (L) and Courtney Sara Bell. Photo: Lonni Silverman

See, Rae isn’t so much upset at being awakened. No, she’s furious at being abandoned, for 18 hours, by Mags, who snuck out in the middle of the night and is only now returning. Is Rae irate because Mags left her alone, to – we later learn – go screw the local cop? Or is she terrified that Mags will have revealed the location of their isolated cabin, and brought the authorities after them because they…

Well, we don’t really know what they do yet, except that it’s apparently outside the law, and they pay that local cop to keep them out of the official cross-hairs. Apparently they pay him quite a bit, though it’s not clear how they get the money. And while there’s talk of their being part of an “underground,” and much conversation of “depots” and “medicals,” we’re never completely filled in on what’s going on outside the cabin. Apparently there’s some sort of plague sweeping the country (the world?), and those who have “it” are quarantined, but Mags and Rae help them escape to Canada, where it seems they can live free.

Heather Lynn Smith (L) and Courtney Sara Bell. Photo: Lonni Silverman

Later on, we find out the women don’t actually help the refugees escape, but rather kill them and bury them on the property. Not out of any sense of duty, but rather, as Rae says, as an act of revenge: seems her beloved brother Wack (Whack?) died of the plague, and she blames everyone with “it” for his death.

It’s the play’s great strength – and, ironically, its greatest weakness – that almost everything is ambiguous. Are Rae and Mags more than just friends? What exactly is “it”? And is “it” real, or just an alternative fact concocted by the government as an excuse to lock up citizens it thinks might be a problem?

The good part of this is that we’re not offered pat explanations, which, in paranoid thrillers such as Cannibals Alone, almost always turn out to be ridiculous. The bad part, on the other hand, is that when every plot point is left hanging, you risk alienating the audience and making them not care.

Heather Lynn Smith (L) and Courtney Sara Bell. Photo: Lonni Silverman

The cast can’t be faulted for not giving its all. Both Ms Bell and Ms Smith throw themselves into their roles with fierce abandon, both histrionically and physically – I wouldn’t be surprised if each of them ends the run bruised and perhaps even a little bloodied now and then.

The two smaller roles are played with equal commitment. Callie (Margaret Glaccum) is an escapee from one of the “depots” who’s been told if she can find her way to the cabin, she’ll be able to obtain her freedom; she’s freed, all right, but not the way she expected. And Val (Ann Hurd) is – or might be – a double agent, who not only takes Rae and Mags by surprise, but sadistically sets in motion the machinery which leads to the final showdown.

Heather Lynn Smith (L) and Margaret Glaccum. Photo: Lonni Silverman

Ms Hurd also designed the set, which nicely fills the tiny Belfry Stage, and is well-lit by Gregory Crafts’s lighting design. Sean Fitzgerald’s fight choreography makes us wince more than once, and though no one is credited with costume design, the clothes are appropriate throughout. Director Julia Plostnieks keeps the goings-on going at breakneck speed, which serves the play well: we may not know what’s really happening, but at least we don’t have much time to worry about it.

While I still would have liked to see some onstage cannibalism – come on, guys, toss a little in, willya? – the fact that there’s more gunplay than in any other show I can recall kinda makes up for it. If you want a bleak look at the future, head to the Belfry Stage. Just stay out of the line of fire.

Cannibals Alone
Written by Steph DeFerie
Directed by Julia Plostnieks

Through March 4

Theatre Unleashed
The Belfry Stage
11031 Camarillo Street
North Hollywood, CA 91602
Tickets: 818-849-4039 or www.theatreunleashed.org


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