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The Undertaking Review: The Civilians Take on Death, Again

Death is well-suited to the stage, according to a philosopher quoted in “The Undertaking,” a play about death and dying written and directed by Steve Cosson, the artistic director of The Civilians. Actors playing Lear or Hamlet allow us to “practice” death, the philosopher explains; they are “ventriloquising” death for us. Death is such a common theme and occurrence in live dramas that theater might as well be called one of the fatal arts.

Given this prominence of death in theatrical life, and The Civilians’ own track record,  “The Undertaking” winds up an underwhelming undertaking.

The Civilians call themselves an investigative theater company, and they base their work on extensive research, involving recorded interviews with people whom they then portray on stage using verbatim quotes. Over the past 17 years, they have dramatized a breathtakingly broad array of topics, from climate change (The Great Immensity) to gentrification (In The Footprint, the story of Atlantic Yards, the largest development project in Brooklyn history) to America (The Way They Live) — this last using works of art from the Metropolitan Museum of Art during their year of residency there.

And, starting in 2013, they have been big on death, with several iterations of a show called “Be the Death of Me.” I saw it at the Irondale Center, where audience members walked through the open space listening in on the verbatim monologues performed by dozens of company members and based on interviews with one New Yorker after another about their varied encounters with death and dying –ER nurses, priests, funeral directors, shamans, crime-scene cleaners.

I initially expected “The Undertaking,” which was first presented at BAM’s Next Wave festival in 2016, to be a continuation of the same compelling approach, and luckily,  in part it is. The two members of the cast, Aysan Celick and Dan Dominques, portray that philosopher, Simon Critchley; a woman who had a near-death experience after a skiing accident; a woman who survived ovarian cancer; the actor Everett Quinton, who talks about all the people who were dying around him in the 1980s because of AIDS, which gave him a different perspective on death: “…when I found out I did not have HIV, I was not thrilled by it. I was geared up and prepared to die. I was ready to go. I was just, ‘Ok, it’s going to happen and then we’ll go.’ And then they told me I had to live and I thought, ‘Oh, no!” See, I’m not a fan of being alive either.”

There are also memorable tidbits scattered throughout: A “cemetery enthusiast,” we’re told, pointed out that all the public parks in Manhattan and Brooklyn are former mass graves.

But the two actors also portray Steve Cosson himself, the creator of the play, and Lydia, who stands in for Jessica Mitrani, a friend of Steve’s. In the play, Steve has asked to interview Lydia, because of her experience with a Brazilian ritual called the vine of death (which I don’t think we ever learn about), but she soon turns it around on him, and urges that he become a character in his play. She finds something missing in him, she says, and “you will not find these missing pieces if you do you not take this risk.” Steve is reluctant to put himself in the play, but he agrees, alas. Fully a third of the play is taken up with Steve’s Orpheus-like descent to the underworld, aided by Lydia acting as his “psychopomp” (an actual English word that my dictionary defines as “a person who conducts spirits or souls to the other world, as Hermes or Charon.” The play’s program, it’s worth noting, identifies Jessica Mitrani as “Creative collaborator and psychopomp.”)  The journey they take involves lots of projected stills from Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus, and the two performers wearing animal skins and hiding under the couch, and wearing masks, and video projections of their masked faces. I wish I knew if there was more to it than that– that it wasn’t just an odd and uncharacteristic lapse into self-indulgence — but I was put to sleep.

The Undertaking
The Civilians at 59 E 59 Theater
Written and directed by Steve Cosson
Conceived in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani
Cast: Aysan Celik, Dan Domingues
“Creative collaborator and psychopomp” Jessica Mitrani
Set and costume design by Marsha Ginsberg, lighting design by Thomas Dunn, sound design by Mikhail Fiksel, projection design by Tal Yarden.
Tickets: $25 – $35
Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission
The Undertaking is scheduled to run through February 4, 2018.

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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