[image-1]A twisted ruse. A bitter rivalry. A trained assassin. Oh, and a corpse, of course. Such is the makings of Corpse!, the Village Repertory Company’s latest production at Woolfe Street Playhouse, adding to the local theater scene’s annual Halloween body count. Directed by Robbie Thomas, this comedy-mystery takes its cue from throwback hits along the lines of The Thin Man or Arsenic and Old Lace in a darkly droll nod to the classic whodunit, which promises more chuckles than chills. After all, the clue is in the name, with Corpse! topping off its titular cadaver with that telltale exclamation point.

The murderous thrust is this: In 1936 London, in the throes of King Edward’s abdication, twin brothers Evelyn and Rupert Farrant (both played by Brian Turner) inhabit vastly different lifestyles on opposite ends of the British food chain. Evelyn, a Shakespeare-spewing, out-of-work actor and all-around scoundrel, dwells in a dreary Soho basement flat, where he dines on pilfered pate and dodges his love-starved landlady, Mrs. McGee (Teralyn Tanner). In infuriating contrast, his financier brother, Rupert, luxuriates in Art Deco splendor in his place near Regent’s Park (think Nick and Nora of the aforementioned The Thin Man), from which he oversees a fleet of Bugatti sports cars and lavishes charitable donations on the local police.

Keen to turn the tables of fraternal fortune, and seal his brother’s fate, Evelyn has hired one Major Walter Powell (Nat Jones), a crack shot with a checkered past and a fondness for Jameson Irish whiskey. Evelyn aims to rid the world and himself of Rupert, and so has masterminded an elaborate scheme involving mistaken identity, precision timing and a bit of blackmail thrown in for good measure. As the plot thickens, antics ensue, resulting in a slapstick farce of fatal errors, with corpses popping up and flopping over throughout the show.

Murder-mystery buffs will likely spy how the play resurrects the halcyon days of the genre, channeling suspense practitioners like Dashiell Hammett and Alfred Hitchcock. If the homage is at first lost on you, never fear: The production’s parodic, melodramatic score asserts itself at select moments to gamely bang that legacy over your head — while it also reminds you that all this gunplay is really just good fun. It may also offer an out regarding the use of stock characters along the lines of a tippling Irishman and desperate housewife, who may simply serve as hangovers from this bygone dramatic form.

It must be pointed out that playwright Gerald Moon doesn’t quite make his mark. While props are in order for him taking a sporting shot at it, the first act involves a belabored set up that can be slow going. As Evelyn, Brian Turner does yeoman’s work in keeping the script aloft under the weight of its considerable exposition. He does so by energetically exploiting Evelyn’s bent for dramatics to entertaining effect (calling to my mind Richard E. Grant in the film Withnail and I). What’s more, Turner maintains this comic poise and sprightly energy level in his other role as well. As Rupert, though, he swaps out Evelyn’s high drama for cool disdain, which at times he ramps up to unchecked, imperious indignation.

Along that vein, Teralyn Tanner’s wanton Mrs. McGee does much to infuse humor into her scenes, lasciviously, hopelessly throwing herself time and again at an aghast Evelyn, who has made it clear to the audience that he prefers men. As the rough hewn, gruff Major, Nat Jones plays the straight man out of the gate — as he gets his head around his client’s chilling request and where the playwright’s pen proves most leaden. However, when the Major gets to the deed at hand, Turner is able to break through with crowd-pleasing sight gags, while he also grapples with a growing perplexity at the curious events transpiring in Evelyn’s flat.

The actors’ efforts pay off in the second act, when all goes horribly, hysterically awry with Evelyn’s ill-advised plan. It is then that the production plays out in well-timed, relentless physical comedy, which serves to buoy the show and send the audience laughing home. The production also gets an assist throughout from its clever technical work, which enables Turner to be felled on the stage floor as one brother and quickly emerge elsewhere on stage as the other.

Regarding the set: It is perceptibly no small feat for Hunter to reemerge as his brother. In displaying both homes joined center stage, the set accounts for a great stretch that is nearly wall-to-wall of the Woolfe. I had good fun noodling out just how the actor managed to duck and dash from one hidden exit to the other. However, when the plot busted loose in pratfalls, gotchas, and confessions, I was duly absorbed by the happenings on stage, when they revealed just exactly who had done what – and, for that matter, why — and manic, delirious, old guard delight.