Joseph Green’s 1962 low-budget cult classic The Brain That Wouldn’t Die offers an awkward blend of uneasiness with science and fascination/revulsion with the female form. The film (unevenly) tells the story of brilliant surgeon Dr. Bill Cortner, who keeps the severed head of his bride-to-be alive after a horrific car accident while he searches among strippers and beauty contestants for a perfect body.
The film is absurdly bad, which, of course, makes it so good. The acting, writing, and direction are cheap and shoddy. Yet, the startling imagery of Jan Compton’s severed head methodically plotting revenge captivates. Jan’s torment, paired with Bill’s manic quest for a body to “wed” to her head, steers the plot into creepiness as he scours landscapes wherein “fallen” women parade their bodies for profit. The film’s misplaced camera angles, stilted performances, bad science, and bodies-in-pieces make it the perfect cult classic: deep philosophic themes presented in a ridiculously slipshod manner. Seemingly promising material for a stage production.
Unfortunately, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, the world premiere musical at the Overtime Theater, becomes a great idea gone wrong in the hands of a director without clear vision, an overzealous composer, and performers that are underrehearsed and one-note (often flat). Musical composition by Phillip Luna and lyrics by Jon Gillespie serve to prolong scenes instead of moving the story forward. There are too many songs (one or two for nearly every principal cast member), resulting in a production that is significantly longer than the film.
Jaime Ramirez’s musical direction fails to bring out the best in the all-too-often struggling voices of the performers, while Charles Barksdale’s choreography relies on cliché movements that add little to the narrative. Meanwhile, Michael Burger’s direction never finds a convincing style. Is this a campy spectacle in the tradition of The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Or is it an exploration of the style and/or themes of the film? Robbed of purpose, the production becomes a broad and unrefined mess overrun by puns.
Surprisingly, some performers, particularly in the ensemble, struggled to remember lyrics and choreography on opening weekend. Mistakes (such as a slight trip or missed cue) resulted in actors’ breaking character and laughing. Before the show began, actors peeked from behind the curtains to check out the audience, and during intermission they wandered about the lobby. This kind of nonsense muddies the overall production.
Robert Jerdee, as Dr. Bill Cortner, and Christie Walheim, as Jan, fared somewhat better in that they seemed to invest fully in their roles. Both brought considerable energy to the stage, but a lack variety in their vocal and physical range prevented nuance, which eventually became grating.
Two bright spots in the evening point to areas of unmined potential. First, the Overtime’s wonderfully eclectic lobby, especially Rebecca Coffey’s artwork, echoed the film’s strange mixture of menace and absurdity. One wishes Coffey’s talent had been used to design the set. Second, the scene of Dr. Bill running with the severed head after the car accident perfectly captured the film, while commenting brilliantly on it. When Bill stops mid-trauma to have a quick smoke and nap before resuming his screaming, it exaggerates the absurdity of the scene. I wish such specificity had been used throughout the production.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, bringing a cult work such as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die to the stage requires precision and vision: When a severed head, creepy science, marriage, and strippers collide, such badness don’t come easy. •