The Undertaking, Civilians Investigative Theater, 59E59

"Underneath These Placid Gestures"

The Undertaking

The Civillians Investigative Theater Company
59e59 Theaters

Written and Directed by Steve Cosson
Conceived in Collaboration with Jessica Mitrani

Aysan Celik
Dan Domingues

Creative Team:
Jessica Mitrani (Creative Collaborator and Psychopomp)
Marsha Ginsberg (Set and Costume Design)
Thomas Dunn (Lighting Design)
Mikhail Fiksel (Sound Design)
Tal Yarden (Projection Design)
Geoff Boronda (Stage Manager)
Rachael Gass (Assistant Stage Manager)
Ron Nilson (Production Manager)
Margaret Moll (Producer)

Additional Staff
Blake Palmer (Assistant Set and Costume Designer)
Lee Kinney (Sound Design Associate)
Jocelyn Clarke and Jacey Erwin (Dramaturgy)

Interviews conducted by Steve Cosson, Jessica Mitrani, and Leonie Ettinger

The Undertaking
Photo courtesy Carol Rosegg, TimeOut

January 30, 2018

When my grandfather passed away, his soul came back as a little white dog. My family stood in silence at the graveyard next to a startlingly small hole in the ground, Auntie Ann's breathing apparatus the only thing to break the silence with its "puff" every 20 seconds. He'd been cremated, to take up less space, to have less impact on the environment, to leave room for others to stand in silence too. Puff. We each threw a rose into the pit and exhaled his loss.

Suddenly, a little white dog came bolting out from the forest, its mouth agape and tongue lolling in exuberance, completely at odds with the peacefulness of those who are supposedly "at peace." It pranced up to each of us in turn, licking fingers and sniffing shoes, smiling that universal grin of dogs everywhere. My father and I looked at each other and broke into our own smiles. Grandpa had loved dogs, been filled with his own boundless exuberance before Alzheimer's stole his flare, and if this little white dog wasn't my grandfather himself it was Charon come to ferry him across to the afterlife. Puff.

I relived this beloved memory last night at The Undertaking, a bold new work by the Civilians Investigative Theater in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani. I've noticed recently that Off-Off and Off-Broadway plays are taking adventurous strides away from the trite love stories of yesteryear, and this production brimmed with themes I generally wouldn't associate with 80 minutes of live theater: anxiety, AIDS, psychopomp, not-knowing, and, of course, death. It could have easily become a disarray of self-indulgent and disconnected philosophizing, but through the remarkable acting, live recordings of people's experiences with death, and utterly seamless cues of a brilliant stage manager, we hurtled together to discover that "what you know is only that you have a fear of not knowing."

Steve and Lydia, long-time friends, are discussing death. Urgency fills Steve's words and actions because his tape recorder battery is about to die, but Lydia's mind follows tangents. The interviewer gradually becomes the interviewee, and the two find touching ways to embark on their own journey across the River Styx, with Lydia serving as a guide for both Steve and the audience. As they play dress-up and build a pillow fort we are simultaneously thrust into the curiosity of childhood, and the "terminal delirium" of adults living in fear of death. Of not-knowing. Of urgency and anxiety and the fear of being left behind.

The crux of the play is Lydia's insistence that Steve imagine something that terrifies him. One simple thing - like Ebola - that makes his heart race. Instead there's nothing. No visions, no concrete thing that gives an explanation for his general level of anxiety. Ceiling-high projections gradually come into focus, underscoring the power of words and recordings to overlap new perspective onto our own.

When they've finally crossed the River Styx (in a remarkably executed live stream via iPhone that I can't quite explain), Steve confronts his fear face-to-face. The reason he cannot see any one thing that terrifies him is because of an underlying, constant, ever-present-yet-somehow-placid current of terror. And what lies beneath that? The dread of being left behind.

Because, as the play helps us discover, we will never know what happens after death. If it's Heaven...we cannot return to share the good news, if it's nothingness...we will neither know nor care. The only feeling - the only true feeling - one can have of death is the terror of not knowing.

Each element of the play was remarkable - the set intimately designed, costumes impeccable, and the cues! Lighting, sound, voice executed with the startling perfection of a stage manager and director who are masters of their craft.

If I could give this play 11 out of 10 stars I would, but I don't do stars (yet) and you, poor reader, would have no basis of comparison. All I can say is find Jessica Mitrani and let her be your psychopomp to the underworld. You won't regret it.

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