Trapped in ice for the 2582nd day running, the puzzlingly portly captain of a hapless north pole expedition in Voyage of the Carcass (HERE) is a not-yet-dead ringer for Steven Soderbergh, whose self-impregnating meta-movie Full Frontal hits theaters just as Dan O’Brien’s play-within-a-play finishes up its run. The film’s title is a naughty tease, of course, just as Voyage promises a Shackleton-at-the-Donner Party crackup but ends up chronicling another brand of inexorable deathwatch. Just a few minutes into an amiable slapstick farce about cabin fever and improvisational gastronomy among the dwindling crew of the Carcass, the house lights come up, casting an unflattering glare on a trio of workshopping actors—two of them a married couple, all three old friends—who’ve schlepped plenty of excess baggage to this dusty rehearsal space.
As intro-pomo as the conceit may sound, that first breach of faith in just-pretend is genuinely unnerving—the play seems to crumble before your eyes, leaving its inhabitants indecently exposed. The aforementioned Soderbergh twin, Bill (Michael Anderson), is unhappily wed to his brittle co-star Helen (Rebecca Harris), who nurses a longtime crush on the playwright, Dan (Chris Mason), doing double-duty as the inner play’s mute, enigmatic first mate. Bill, too, harbors his own unresolved issues with Dan, chief among them a rather prescient jealousy. As the run-through continues, the polar shenanigans—involving a prominently displayed corpse with an ice pick protruding from his forehead—take on glints of autobiographical resonance and their own goofy pathos, while the coffee breaks grow loud, confessional, and adulterous.
Anderson, Harris, and Mason banter, needle, and interrupt each other like they’ve indeed been doing just that for a decade; O’Brien and director Alyse Leigh Rothman not only have acute ears for well-worn cadences but mischievous eyes for impeccably staged physical comedy, be it Anderson’s wistful pose atop a human chassis or Mason’s lovely bouquet of jetés and pliés offered as a non sequitur palate cleanser just after intermission. At whiplash turns bitter and sweet, Voyage of the Carcass expertly navigates the pitfalls of artistic cannibalism: scavenging from your own life to feed your life’s work.