Written and Directed by Steve Cosson
Produced by The Civilians, in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani
Part of the BAM Next Wave Festival
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 9.25.16
Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place
by Ran Xia on 9.23.16
Irene Lucio and Dan Domingues in The Undertaking. Photo by Richard Termine.
BOTTOM LINE: The Civilians’ stunning new investigative work on various people's understandings, as well as experiences, of death.
The set of The Undertaking does not, at first glance, suggest a play about death, and instead resembles a photographer’s studio. On three sides are curtains made of white, reflective material that serve as both the walls of the studio and a backdrop for projections. The overall atmosphere gives the impression that something quirky and lighthearted is about to unfold; at the same time, there is a kind of foreboding heaviness, like that queasy feeling that makes you chuckle in an uneasy situation.
The Undertaking begins casually, as an interview that director-playwright Steve Cosson (Dan Domingues) conducts with his friend Lydia (Irene Lucio), who has had experience with ayahuasca (translated as Vine of the Dead, or Vine of the Soul), a psychedelic plant mixture used in Brazil. for spiritual purposes. But this interview gradually turns into more of a Socratic dialogue as Lydia guides Steve through a journey of personal discovery. As Steve follows Lydia’s lead and “visits” the land of the dead, the procession parallels Orpheus’ journey to the underworld through a mirror (as seen in Orpheus, a 1950 French film directed by Jean Cocteau, which is projected on the backdrop).
The writer’s personal struggles are soon revealed as the two friends recreate (in their way) Orpheus descending into the underworld, with Lydia becoming Steve’s psychopomp (a guide of souls to the place of the dead, according to Greek mythology). Juxtaposed with these self-discoveries and discussions about death are testaments from Steve’s various interviewees for the project, including an ovarian cancer survivor, a nurse practitioner, a soldier who practices the mental training of a samurai, and more. Some of the recordings are played in the background as the two actors speak the same lines aloud.
Perhaps more explanation is helpful. If you aren’t already familiar with The Civilians, it is an acclaimed Brooklyn-based company that specializes in investigative, documentary-style theatre. Their process often involves conducting interviews with individuals who have some connection to the subject of interest—in this case, death. The resulting play text is then composed of transcripts of these interviews, often performed verbatim.
Previous productions by The Civilians have been predominately ensemble-based, where each of the actors embodies various interviewees, and the interviewers do not play a significant role in the action. The Undertaking differs from these, in that it shapes up to be largely about Cosson's courageous attempts to face his own fears. Revealing one’s own vulnerability in such a public setting can be scary, and in The Undertaking, the writer transitions from hiding behind metaphors, intellectualization, and placid gestures to putting himself underneath the microscope and actually going through a quest of self-examination.
The quirky-queasy atmosphere at the beginning proves prescient: The Undertaking pulled at the pit of my stomach as it carried out its explorations of a subject of extraordinary depth with surprising lightness. As this investigation of death brings us such new respect for life, The Undertaking reveals Cosson's most honest and unyielding sincerity, his admission of fear, and his (and our) realization that we are not alone.
(The Undertaking plays at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Fishman Space, 321 Ashland Place, through September 25, 2016. The running time is 80 minutes without intermission. Remaining performances are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 3. Tickets are $25, but are now only available on a standby basis. For more information visit bam.org or call 718-636-4100.)
The Undertaking is written and directed by Steve Cosson. Produced by The Civilians in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani. Set and Costume Design is by Marsha Ginsberg. Lighting Design is by Thomas Dunn. Sound Design is by Mikhail Fiksel. Projection Design is by Tal Yarden. Stage Manager is Cherie B. Tay. Production Manager is Stacey Boggs.
The cast is Dan Domingues and Irene Lucio.