Friday, January 19, 2018

143 (2017-2018): Review: THE UNDERTAKING (seen January 18, 2018)

“Psychopomp and Circumstance”

The Civilians, founded in 2001, calls itself an “investigative theater company” whose productions grow out of field research, the work seeking “to dynamically engage vital social, cultural, and political questions.” In their newest work, The Undertaking, written and directed by Steve Cosson, they turn their attention to the ever-popular subject of death; the result, though, too often borders on the deadly. The work reportedly sold out at the 2016 BAM New Wave Festival but less than one half of Theater B at 59E59 was filled the night I went.

Aysan Celi, Dan Domingues. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Taking a cue from artists like Anna Deavere Smith—who turns tape-recorded interviews into hot-button, topical performances, portraying all the people she’s spoken to—Cosson (in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani) has created a collage of multiple interview-based episodes, with all the characters played by two versatile actors.
Dan Domingues. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
His metatheatrical premise is that writer-director Steve (Dan Domingues) is recording a session with a Brazilian media artist named Lydia (Aysan Celik)apparently based on Cosson’s collaborator, Mitrani—at her sparsely furnished, sleekly modern studio (smartly designed by Marsha Ginsberg and lit by Thomas Dunn). Its walls are created out of slender strips of white fabric; its look is enhanced by potted plants and animal skin rugs.
Dan Domingues, Aysan Celik. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As Steve fumbles with his recording device, the Latin-accented Lydia chats about her thoughts on death, the dialogue having the kind of rambling, disconnected, “real-life” quality familiar from taped conversations. Lydia, talking about her anxieties, refers to the “vine of death,” ayahausaca, and its use in shamanistic rites that make a subject feel the imminence of death.

A pattern of self-referential conversations between Steve and Lydia, interwoven with taped bits from Steve’s interviewees, constitutes the 80-minute play’s basic structure. The lights pop off and on for each new scene, with Steve and Lydia always being revealed in some new space, as Steve strives to come to terms with his fears about mortality. His obsession is closely connected to his mother’s suffering in a nursing home from MS, whose symptoms he may himself be subconsciously experiencing.
Dan Domingues, Aysan Celik. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The first new episode begins as Steve, accompanied by weird sound effects (good work by Mikhail Fiksel), assumes the persona of someone named Bryn, who describes his near-death experience following a horrific skiing accident.
Dan Domingues. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
As time passes, someone talks about how bodies are embalmed; a hospice nurse discusses the process of dying; British philosopher Simon Critchley talks about actors doing our dying for us and about immortality as discussed in Plato’s dialogues; Dinah, a cancer victim, discusses what she went through, along with a psychologist, Tony, who oversaw a drug-induced treatment seemingly designed to replicate what dying feels like; and Everett Quinton, longtime collaborator of famed Ridiculous Theatrical Company actor-writer-director Charles Ludlam, considers his reactions to the deaths from HIV of Ludlam and others close to him.
Dan Domingues, Aysan Celik. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
This being a multimedia production, much of it involves all three walls of the set being splashed with Tal Yarden’s still and video projections. Most memorably, footage from French writer-director Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée, starring Jean Marais as a man who descends into the afterworld, are projected as the action downstage proceeds. Lydia, inspired by Orphée and Aristophanes’ The Frogs, improvises Steve/Orpheus’ own transition to the other side, with Lydia, like Heurtebise, the chauffeur in Orphée, being his psychopomp, or escort to the afterlife, as a means to overcoming his terrors.
Aysan Celik, Dan Domingues. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Grim as its subject is, some room is found for laughter in this earnest but soporific work. Domingues and Celik, fine actors both, do their best to keep Cosson’s morbidities alive, but nothing expressed is at all original or provocative. Nor are the random bits and pieces well enough integrated to provide a cohesive response to Steve’s problems.
Dan Domingues, Aysan Celik. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
There’s little about Steve and Lydia to make us care about them, the people whose words they speak are abstractions. The Undertaking comes off as a string of random thoughts on something most of us already think about regularly, if not as intensely, all of it stuffed into a half-baked, if well-done, experimental theatre exercise. For enlightenment, more might be gained from a conversation about the grim reaper while passing around a bong.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59 St., NYC

Through February 4