The Unrepentant Necrophile: the punk rock musical that’s a test case for female empowerment

Katie Hartman in The Unrepentant Necrophile, The Coldharts. Photo by Dan Norman.

By Liz Nicholls,

The Brooklyn duo the Coldharts are undeniably into dark and shivery. Take their unnerving Fringe hit Edgar Allan, in which the terrifying young Poe is haunted by a doppelgänger he can’t shake. Or The Legend of White Woman Creek, an eerie one-woman musical performed by a ghost.

If for their third horror musical, the Coldharts were (as Nick Ryan says cheerfully) “looking for subject matter that deeply disturbs us and makes us uncomfortable,” they hit the jackpot the day they “stumbled on” the story of Karen Greenlee.

The Unrepentant Necrophile is (to my, admittedly circumscribed, knowledge) the sole punk rock musical to unspool from this weird source.

Greenlee is the apprentice embalmer in Sacramento, California who turned out to take a love of job in queasy directions, as a career necrophile. In 1978, en route to the Memorial Lawn Mortuary with a corpse in the back of the hearse she was driving, she went AWOL for a few days, to have some quality alone time with the dead body of a 33-year-old man.

In the end, according to California law of the day, she was charged only with stealing a hearse and interfering with a funeral. The bizarre case inspired much research, not least because of male dominance in the necrophilia field.

The Unrepentant Necrophile premiered two years ago at the Twin Cities Horror Festival in Minneapolis. As part of its ##RosesAreDeadLipsAreBlue tour, the show makes its Canadian debut this week — on Valentine’s Day! — thanks to Fringe Theatre Adventures, at the Chinook Series. 

Male necrophilia has been widely documented — albeit not a whole lot in the American musical theatre. And the Coldhart duo did their research. “The details are so provocative and visceral; it shook us at our core.” But, as Hartmen concedes, the idea of male attack on female corpses is “left me feeling so violated that we kept looking….” A notoriously unapologetic interview given by Greenlee at the time caught their eye. 

“There are so many contradictions,” as Hartman points out. “Is it a feminist piece? I don’t think so…. For one thing, it’s set in 1978 when men and women aren’t equal by any means.” As Ryan says, it’s disturbing to “find female empowerment in that world.”

In 2018 The Unrepentant Necrophile is a highly unusual response to a moment in history when consent and sexuality are inflammatory issues in new ways, as he notes. Even in the two years since its creation, the cultural dynamic has changed.

“Horror is usually a reflection of societal anxiety,” says Hartman.  “And the conversation has changed….” As one example, two years ago, “lines that got nervous laughter” when the Coldharts were trying out The Reluctant Necrophile, “were not laughed at last night,” she says of their opening night last week in Minneapolis. “I was curious.”

The star of the show is, after all, a female character “asking for what she wants,” normally a positive development in empowerment circles. Even the most open-minded have to concede that necrophilia is pretty much an ultimate test cast for this. As Hartman says, “the show pushes everyone really far, to really extreme places.”

The world that led up to the U.S. election “has turned a corner,” says Ryan. He plays “the woman’s creepy creepy” mortician co-worker who crosses several lines with her. He used to get a lot of sympathy….” Not any more. Says Hartman, “it’s post-#MeToo now. Society has caught up, in a way.”

The third member of the cast is percussionist Nate Gebhard as the corpse; admirably, he doesn’t let being dead interfere with his drumming, which takes a certain kind of improbable physical invention. Punk rock was always the musical style of choice, loud and anarchic. “It absolutely invites punk!” declares Ryan, who plays bass.

In a conference call last week, they outlined the division of labour in creating a show they called “mixed discipline.” Ryan’s responsibility is  playwriting, Hartman’s and Gebhard’s are music and movement. “Edgar Allan had so much text. This time we challenged ourselves to create a piece where the visuals, the physical movement, and the music are (dominant) … and the dialogue is very spare and awkward.

“Not as cute as Edgar Allan,” laughs Ryan. “And substantially louder!” Think Pogues concert, he says, and adds that they provide earplugs for the delicate.

“We’re fully prepared to alienate everyone!” 


The Unrepentant Necrophile

Fringe Theatre Adventures, in the Chinook Series 2018

Theatre: The Coldharts

Starring: Katie Hartman, Nick Ryan, Nate Gebhard

Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: Wednesday through Sunday

Tickets: 780-409-1910,

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