Death is by far the most traumatic issue for anyone to consider. Most of us line up on a spectrum ranging from avoiding thinking about it to rationally making financial and legal preparations. Steve Cosson falls into the “very worried” category.
Cosson is the director of The Civilians, whose MO is to “create original work derived from investigations into the world beyond the theater.” What that means is that company members interview real-life actors on a chosen topic – The Civilians have examined the Paris Commune, global warming and sex workers – to create something that can look like theater masquerading as journalism or research trying to find a creative outlet. The latter is the case in The Undertaking, which premiered at BAM’s Next Wave festival last week, and tries, frustratingly, to straddle both death (“undertaking” as the funeral process) and art (“undertaking” as a pursuit).
So, whereas any of us might read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross or the latest New York Times best-seller on the subject, if you’re Cosson (“Steve,” in the play), you begin, obviously though promisingly enough, by interviewing people who regularly confront death, from cancer patients to nurses to soldiers. Their stories are sobering examples of courage but hardly soothing. To get a bigger picture, you consider what philosophers reasoned on the subject, from Socrates to Derrida. Unfortunately, the ultra-cool postmodernist was “deathly” afraid of it.
With your fears still there, you try to find clues to the afterworld in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus. Maria Casarès must be the most striking Death ever but your conclusions are not very helpful. Now your research question is unravelling into personal narrative and fantasy. You consult an artist friend who had an out-of-body experience taking hallucinogenic plants in Brazil, but she remains mum on what happened to her, so you meet therapists who prescribe Psilocybin mushrooms for the same purpose. Rather desperate after so many hours of interviews, in the absence of any findings (and what was the question anyways, and are you really looking for catharsis rather than data?), you finally engage in a bit of pantomime to simulate the voyage to the mythical underworld (as if that were possible, but you do discover what psychopomp means in the process).
Unfortunately for those of us in the audience, Cosson doesn’t uncover much more, or at least not about death. What we do learn, in this two-hander starring Dan Domingues as Steve and Irene Lucio as Steve’s friend, Lydia, is mostly about Steve, a gay man in NYC who has lost friends to AIDS and whose mother suffers from MS, and who is struggling to make a play out of hours of interviews (but no fears there: Lydia is keen to be his Charon-esque dramaturg).
We’re left with excerpted testimonials that Domingues and Lucio deliver in accents and intonations that carefully mimic the voices of Cosson’s interviewees. These monologues are the strongest moments in The Undertaking, as the actors deliver all the emotion in these raw, unromanticized, and immediate experiences with death. But such glimpses of authenticity are too infrequent and are quickly smoothed over when the storyline resumes, wherein Steve and Lydia spend a playful, drunken night in the artist’s studio trying to hash out the writer’s problems. Marsha Ginsberg’s Ikea-clean set and Tal Yarden’s projections of cityscapes, trees and live video keep emotion at a safely remote distance.
If death is the great equalizer, well, then we must turn to the business of living. Life must go on, we say. Isn’t life beautiful? How lucky we are to be alive! Cosson leaves us there, holding hands with Lydia under a sun-warmed “Tree of Life!” The Undertaking’s pun should have warned me, but I was too intent on finding something bigger than the sum of its parts. My loss.