An Exquisite Corpse Brims with Life

“An Exquisite Corpse” as directed by Rohan Hejmadi ’21 and Amaechi Abuah ’21 brought the apocalypse to the audience. On February 22, 2019, at the main stage of the Lang Performing Arts Center, four actors played in one of the most varied and multifaceted shows ever seen at Swarthmore. With the stage strewn with boxes and bags filled with a scant amount of food, a desperate feeling already engulfed the audience upon entrance. The lights dimmed as an ominous whirring began to hum, heralding the opening of the show, with the four characters on stage and ready to go.

“An Exquisite Corpse” is about a group of four characters diverse in backgrounds, ages, and orientations who find themselves stuck together in an old nuclear bunker as a potential World War Three develops around them. After hearing sirens and a warning, they all run to the bunker, and the show starts off as they begin to come to terms with their situation. The black sheep of the crowd, Michael (Shail Modi ’21), tends to be the first to cause problems with his pessimistic views and he often gets in fights, especially with Reed (AV Lee-A-Yong ‘21), a gender neutral teen. The other two characters try to keep these fights at bay — Sarah (Elizabeth Mickelson ’22) acts as a more mature presence while Philip (Skylar Thoma ’21) is a younger, more naive one. The characters bounce between comedic dialogue to dark thoughts in a jolty and endearing way as we see them come to terms with their situation and possible deaths due to lack of rations. During all of their interactions, they get to know each other through icebreakers, stories, and a guided meditation session. It’s dark humor at its best with the characters alternating between being at each other’s throats and cracking jokes of with pitch perfect gallows humor. A week after their initial entrapment, the members decide to forage in the world above as they and the audience feel the booming of bombs — or something more sinister. The play ends with Reed being left to protect the bunker, finally readying themselves for the fallout, whenever it may be.

While the show lacks true emotional resolution between the characters, they seem to reach a grudging acceptance of each other despite earlier conflicts. Camaraderie is formed amongst the group as they come to accept their differences and individual strengths and plan on a new way to survive. Instead of being pessimistic, the ending was a mark of the characters accepting their new reality instead of doubting or running from it.

On a more technical note, the play was a conglomeration of the work of many individuals on stage and off, with over eight writers and even more crew members. The cast themselves created their characters, which were then sent off to eight Swarthmore playwrights (Camryn Slosky ’22, Shail Modi ’21, Ellora Rich ’20, Emma Pernudi-Moon ’19, Faith Booker ’21, Alex Kingsley ’20, Clare Grundstein ’20, and Rebecca Regan ’19) who were given a character description and an opening and ending line. After an extensive writing process, they refined the play and gave it to the cast members to perform. The sound and lighting was also exceptional, with atmospheric effects in both that made the audience feel encased in the same bunker the characters were on stage.

It was an innovative concept for a theatrical piece with its bouquet of writers, and had its ups and downs. Giving many different writers a chance to portray the characters led to different escapades and plot devices from scene to scene that kept the concept fresh even if the circumstances of the characters had not changed. The changing of scenes, however, led to some character inconsistencies and tone shifts that took away from the overall meaning of the show. Even if it might not have been a smooth sail, it was definitely an riveting one, and the concept proved its worth in a laugh — and dread — inducing performance that brought something real to the LPAC main stage.

“An Exquisite Corpse” challenges the audience with its themes of the unknown and desperation as we see the characters grieve and guffaw their way through such a devastating situation. The strength needed to survive in these scenarios is awe inspiring, and the play shows that with the characters bringing their best and bravest emotions to the table. Seeing them pull through gives the audience hope for the uniting ability of humanity, as well as our ability to survive.

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