When Murphi Cook and Zach Dorn first met, they were both budding playwrights, but they weren't your typical dramatists who worship at the feet of David Mamet and Sam Shepard. Instead, the pair found a kinship in the dark, the twisted, and the terrifyingly funny. "Zach was writing plays about JonBenét Ramsey with puppets, and I was writing plays about these people eating their butler in a pie," Cook says.
Today, Cook and Dorn are the demonic duo behind Miniature Curiosa, a Pittsburgh-based theatrical troupe that relies on tiny sets, puppets, and shadows to tell their tales, and when they perform, the pair are literally inches away from the audience.
This week, they'll be in Charleston to perform Moon City, the second installment in a trilogy about Frederick Ingersoll, a man who sunk his fortune into building amusement parks. "We were kind of obsessed with this amusement park that used to be in Pittsburgh called Lunar Park, and no one knew about it and it disappeared," Cook says. "We were really interested in him because he put all this money into amusement and he was bankrupt and he ended up dying in an amusement park in Nebraska." For Cook, the trilogy is an exploration of the more horrifying aspects of being completely invested in your ideas.
In Moon City, the two playwrights imagine what Ingersoll would have done after the construction of Lunar Park, and in this case, it's trying to build an amusement park in a swamp, which, you don't need to be told, is probably not a good idea.
As for Ingersoll's passion for amusement parks, Cook understands the late visionary's fascination with Ferris wheels, roller coasters, and carnival games. "One of the things I like about amusement parks now is the sense of seeing the world through the eyes of a young Murphi, and I think successful amusement parks do that," Cook says. "Roller coasters and stuff are fun, but I really like the kitsch side of things."
And that off-beat vibe carries over into how Cook and Dorb appear. She says, "Zach and I both kind of look like deranged children, I say. We both have a real dark side and that dark side is something we explore a lot."
She adds, "Even if things look really exciting and happy, there is always something unsettling just beneath the surface. Our plays often dance that line of fun and exuberance with a real scariness."
Those sentiments, of course, extend to Moon City, which is sure to be as morbid as the pair's previous works. "The play we did last year at Piccolo Spoleto was called Tonight a Clown Will Travel Time, and it's about this clown that goes back in time to try and stop this elephant from being hung so he can impress this woman," she says. "The happy ending would be that he saves the elephant and he saves the woman, but instead the elephant still gets hung." Yikes.
Although Cook is the first to admit their works are creepy — heck, she even calls the puppets she makes "crazy, bullfrog people" — she notes that everything is not all doom and gloom. In fact, she says, their works are a "brightly colored dark shadow."