Sunday, November 26, 2017

115 (2017-2108): Review: THE BRIEFLY DEAD (seen November 25, 2017)

“Alcestis, Part 2”

Stephen Kaliski’s hard-to-love The Briefly Dead, being given its world premiere by the Adjusted Realists at 59E59 Theaters, is in the long tradition of purposeful retellings of ancient dramas, a tradition in which even Shakespeare played a part. Premodern examples normally retained a classical setting but modern examples, like Anouilh’s Antigone, to cite a famous example, often contemporize the dramatic world, emphasizing its relationship to current concerns. The Briefly Dead attempts to do this with flimsy results.
Mia Isabella Aguirre, Ben Kaufman. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.

Inspired by Euripides’ unusual tragicomedy Alcestis (438 BC), The Briefly Dead is intended as a sequel to that “problem play,” much as Lucas Hnath’s recent A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. But Kaliski’s far less successful and far more anachronistic effort takes a great many more liberties with his source material than Hnath’s; given the general unfamiliarity of Alcestis, however, this will bother scholars more than most theatregoers.
Paul Hinkes, Jenna Zafiropoulos, Sarah Wadsley, Kristin Fulton. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.
What will concern them, however, is the play’s uneven style, its confusing, episodic narrative, its thematic vagueness, its unconvincing, meandering dialogue, its feeble humor, and its jumpy, episodic structure.

Elizabeth Ostler’s direction, aided by the choreography of Katie Proulx, gives the play some distinctively theatrical moments, with stylized movements, freezes, shadow puppets (designed by Ostler), and supernatural lighting and sound effects (thanks to Jessica Greenberg). But the play’s structural issues aren’t helped by her frequently lethargic pacing and lack of dramatic thrust.
Jenna Zafiropoulos. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Bfandon Saloy.
In Euripides’ play, Admetos is a king whose life was extended when the god Apollo arranged it with Thanatos (Death); when his time to die arrives he’s allowed to find someone willing to substitute their life for his. The only person to agree is his wife, Alcestis, mother of their children, who’s preparing for death when the play begins. Before passing, Alcestis extracts from Admetos a vow of faithfulness to her memory and resistance to partying. Then, Admetos’ friend, Heracles, arrives. Reluctant to disturb his guest by telling him what’s happened, Admetos carouses with Heracles, thus breaking his vow. When Heracles discovers the truth, his guilt drives him to wrestle Alcestis back from Death, reuniting her with her husband.

In The Briefly Dead, the time is now, the costumes (by Peri Grabin Leong) a fusion of classical Greek and contemporary, and the dialogue colloquial, with references to everyday life, like sushi. Kyu Shin’s set, which covers one corner of Theater C’s small room, consists of square, gray pillars, with the most noteworthy prop a chaise longue; the audience sits on the two remaining sides of a stage floor painted in Greek motifs.

Death (Mia Isabella Aguirre), affecting a mildly ironic tone, is a black-garbed businesswoman with a headdress of feathers and butterflies; an amplified God voice calls her “boss.”  Nearby corpses are actors in white sweatpants and hoodies with barcodes on them.
Paul Hinkes. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.
Admetos (Ben Kaufman) convinces Death to return Alcestis (Jenna Zafiropoulos), but he neglects to retrieve a box containing her memory. He, his faithful assistant, Avra (Kristin Fulton), and Alcestis’ three companions endeavor to help Alcestis regain her memory. The chorus-like trio are Zena (Katie Proulx), Alcestis’s sister; Kyra (Sarah Wadsley), her best friend; and Phyllis (Sofiya Cheyenne), her neighbor. Also assisting is Heracles (Paul Hinkes, all 6’8” of him), a grungy, country-style guitarist/singer who performs a cool solo by Steve Smith.
Mia Isabella Aguirre. Photo: Mia Isabella Photograpy/Brandon Saloy.
Admetos rules over an unnamed place where the people are rising up and war is breaking out, painful facts he insists be kept from his wife. Although it’s mentioned in passing that he’s responsible for “atrocities,” no explanation of the political background is offered, nor is Admetos shown as a tyrant. This is just one of the writing’s many distractingly unclear features that suggest they derive more from arbitrary choices than carefully thought-out ones.
Jenna Zafiropoulos, Ben Kaufman. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.
Why, for example, is it hinted that Alcestis killed herself (there’s even a reference to Sylvia Plath)? Why, after Admetos retrieves her memories, does Alcestis change so radically, acting ruthlessly toward others on the slightest pretext? Why, seeing the comforts she enjoys, does she want to be dead again? Why, after experiencing what appears to have been a benign experience in the afterworld, does she caution Admetos to “be careful” when he’s preparing to go there? Why, as Alcestis’ memory sharpens, does Admetos’ own memory show signs of slipping?
Sarah Wadsley, Jenna Zafiropoulos. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.
The cast--including four proud graduates of the Brooklyn College MFA program (like the playwright and director)--offers generally creditable work. Most impressive are the performances of the exquisite, widely expressive Zafiropoulos and the charmingly appealing Cheyenne. I hope to soon be seeing them again.  
Ben Kaufman, Sofiya Cheyenne, Jenna Zafiropoulous. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.

As one of Kaliski’s earlier plays, Gluten!, reviewed here exactly two years ago, reveals, he enjoys adding a satirical edge to off-beat, unusual subjects. Eccentricity and the ability to rouse the occasional laugh, however, are not enough to offset incoherence in plotting, character depiction, and point of view. Only a Heraclean effort could rescue The Briefly Dead from becoming the permanently dead.


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through December 10