By Joanna Brady
What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than to open a play about a weird and wonderful Key West love affair that once attracted national attention?
If you don’t see another play this season, try to get to Ben Harrison’s Undying Love, an off beat musical about a ghoulish love affair. Appropriately, it opened on Valentine’s Day at The Studios of Key West, Eaton Street, corner of Simonton.
The play is based on Harrison’s book of the same title, and is a tale like no other. The story tells of an impoverished German count, now a doctor, besotted with a patient, the beautiful young Cuban woman whom he thinks he saw and fell in love with when he was 12 years old. He’s determined to make her his, but there are a few glitches: the lady is married and dying of tuberculosis. He vows to look after her, and he does. In his delusional mind, he vows to bring her back to life.
He certainly does his best, but alas, no good deed goes unpunished. And in truth, Von Cosel takes it all a bit too far when he has her specially embalmed and makes love to her mummified corpse for 7 years.
Ben Harrison is about as close to being a Renaissance Man as anyone I know in Key West. He sings, he plays the guitar, he writes books and songs, he’s a lawyer, an art gallery owner. In short, he’s pretty accomplished and has certainly made his mark in Key West over the years with his performances, and creations like Key West, A Musical Tour About Town.
The book Undying Love that Harrison is best known for comes under the category of ‘you can’t make this stuff up’ proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction, at least in Key West. Set in the dirty ‘thirties, one gets the sense of the bleak isolation of our speck of land at the end of the road. Oversized sepia photos of Key West serve as the backdrop for the the play, evoking the era of Prohibition, the Great Depression, WPA, the hurricane of ’35, and the destruction of Flagler’s railroad.
In sharp contrast, the play breaks right out of the gate with the opening number, ‘Island of Bones’ in which the whole cast sets the play in motion. Director Richard Grusin’s manages to steer the production with deft sureness to its energetic end with ”She was pickled and he poked her”. The eighteen numbers are varied and lively with musicians Larry Baeder, Michael Robinson, Joe Dallas Jr, Aaron Fowler/Kenny Suarez, and Joe Rayhill evoking the Cuban flavor of Key West, and carrying the musical genius of the play, even to playing a little umpa-pa to honor Von Cosel.
Jamie Callahan is terrific as Von Cosel, succeeding in capturing the poignancy as well as the manic traits of this pathetic man. He carries himself with dignity and teutonic bearing throughout, never wavering in his certainty that he did the right thing. (Kudos on the great German accent.) Amber MacDonald Good is lovely as the unfortunate Elena suffering through her illness in the first act, and in the second act is convincing as the Elena of his delusion. The rest of the talented cast also turn in excellent performances. Paula Cabot in particular plays Elena’s mother with emotion that ranges from deep sadness when she suspects Elena is missing from her coffin, to horror when she discovers the truth. The ever-funny Gordon Mackey is hilarious as the funeral director.
Yeah, it’s black, and its macabre, and full of gallows humor, but it’s perhaps that very creepiness that, like a burrowed primordial fear, makes us want to lash out with great guffaws. Like whistling past the graveyard. See it. It’s great!
After Feb. 14, The play runs for nine more performances, all starting at 8:00 p.m., through March 3. Tickets range from $30 to $55 per person. The Studios of Key West is located at 533 Eaton St. For information and ticket availability, visit http://www.tskw.org or call 305-296-0458.
(Joanna Brady is a Key West writer, author of the historical Key West novel “The Woman at the Light”, published by St. Martin’s Press)