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Wednesday, November 6, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Dreamy Riff On Life, Death And Autopsies

Special To The Seattle Times

Theater review

"Memento Mori" by Sharon Evans & Valerie Olney. Directed by Chris Boscia. Produced by AHA! Theatre, 2222 Second Ave. Plays Thursday-Saturday through Dec. 7. 728-1375.

The dark corridor leading to Trotsky's Garage, AHA! Theatre's black-box second space, is adorned with square doors suggesting the refrigerated drawers in a hospital morgue.

Entering the silent room, the audience sees four cadavers beneath sheets, toe-tags dangling. A bespectacled doctor appears, followed by his attractive assistant. Both busily jot notes on clipboards.

The man whistles absently. His aide joins in. Soon the corpses start snapping and clapping along, in a choral rendition of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin."

It's jarring. Hilarious. And, unfortunately, untoppable.

After that, "Memento Mori" never again achieves such cohesive irony and black comedy. Not that this dreamy riff on life, death and autopsies by Chicago writers Sharon Evans and Valerie Olney (inspired by the work of noted pathologist Dr. F. Gonzalez-Crussi) is bad. It just pales after that inspired "overture."

What remains is an uneven array of images and stories about morbidity and mortality. The doctors are revealed as splintered halves of Gonzalez-Crussi's mind. Ben DiGregorio contributes contemplative articles to medical journals. Eva Doak voices the philosopher who pens essays on the meaning of death and dying.

Oddly, the scientist speaks with passion and intensity, as memories of a Mexico City boyhood flash forward to illuminate his present as an expert on death. Meanwhile, more thoughtful rhetoric in an academic lecture style stretches parts of the 90-minute show into an attention endurance test.

Interspersed are short vignettes enacted by the chorus of cadavers (Alam Villegas, Jennifer France, Paul Kramer and Patrick M. Vest), alternately clad in white tunics as pathology interns. Villegas shines as both a smothering mother and a voluptuous death goddess, while Vest and Kramer sweat out an athletically comic "Last Tango of Evita Peron."

Other bits (i.e., a tired game-show sequence) fail. And Chris Boscia's direction wavers between desperation and inspiration. His best moments come in striking visuals that smartly juxtapose Dia de Las Muertes (Day of the Dead), a traditional Mexican revel in death's glory, against an American society both obsessed and terrified by the inevitable.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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