Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Let Me Ascertain You: Death by the Civilians

Salem Graveyard Headstone
Sometimes you stumble upon a group, actor or show and wonder why the hell did it take me so long to find this!  I had that feeling on Friday night at Joe's Pub when I was watching The Civilians do their cabaret act called Let Me Ascertain You.

I swore after L'Affair du Daisey to seek out more truth-based theater because I realized at that time that I had seen so little of it.  Steve Cosson, Artistic Director of The Civilians, spoke at the Truth in Theater panel after the Mike Daisey episode so when I saw his tweet about The Civilians cabaret show I grabbed some tickets.

Known for their work in the field of "investigative theater," the Civilians have a cabaret series called Let Me Ascertain You (the series is available in free podcasts).  This show was focused on Death.

The format included several monologues and a few songs all linked together by the subject of Death. It was directed by Mia Rovegno and performed by Emily Ackerman, Matt Dellapina, Dan Domingues, Nina Hellman, Daniel Jenkins, Meghan McGeary, Greg McFadden, Emily Rossell, and Jeanine Serralles.  The monologues are from interviews gathered by the Civilians.  An actor performs the text of the interview subject.* 

The evening was emceed by Matt Dellapina (super cute and can sing!).  The first two interviews (conducted and edited by Alix Lambert) were based around the staff at The Body Farm in Tennessee.  One interview was with the guy who started The Body Farm and how he realized we need to look at death to learn from it (Greg McFadden).  Though it is not pleasant or something he enjoys (having lost two wives to cancer), he believes that it is destructive that we as a culture actively avoid it.  One interview was with an artist who does facial reconstructions and the story of how her brother killed her whole family (Emily Ackerman).  It was possibly the most unexpected and powerful monologue in the show.  As with life, you don't realize what might be around the corner as this woman is telling her story.  Her bubbly personality and straight-forward manner knock you down as she proceeds to describe how her brother murdered her parents.  Ackerman's performance was heart-breaking and beautiful.

Finally a death related post for my Salem Witch Trial Memorial photo.
There was an interview with the funniest funeral director ever (Dan Domingues). It started with the guy asking, on behalf of his wife, if the person interviewing him could get him tickets to Jesus Christ Superstar.  With his thick Brooklyn accent and personality to spare, I seriously wondered if I wanted that guy to do my funeral. And if his tag line is not "We put the fun in funeral" it should be.  Hard to tell if credit for the humor was due to the subject or Domingues but in any event, I was surprised that the mortician was the funniest bit in the show.

There were songs by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) and Shaina Taub.  Additional interviews were with hospital staff who deal with death a lot (Emily Rossell, Nina Hellman).  I particularly liked the interview with the documentary filmmaker making a film about the AIDS epidemic (Daniel Jenkins).  He describes how experiencing death so early and often in life changes a person.  He sees people who have experienced loss at a young age as set apart from those who experience it later.  He has lived his life with an anxiety that bad things are always waiting for him.  Now as an older man, he is dreading the process of friends starting to die and having to go through another wave of loss in his life.

Finally my favorite Jeanine Serralles (Maple and Vine, The Maids) performed an interview of an incarcerated woman from a series of interviews done at a Women's Prison in Bogotá, Columbia.  Dare I say it was a hilarious tale of being a prostitute, drug dealer and victim of a stabbing.  Serralles is such an energetic performer.  I know that this episode will be available on a podcast at some point but I think seeing the performers adds to the experience. And I can't say enough good things about Serralles but she delivered a feisty performance as this lady prisoner.

The Civilians next show is in June.  There will be a whole show based on interviews about the yearly Beauty Pageant conducted at the Bogotá Prison on June 13, 2012 at the 92YTribeca

The Civilians approach is fascinating: taking the real words spoken by a non-actor, editing them and presenting them by an actor.  It reminded me of the StoryCorps project and the book Listening is an Act of Love which makes me cry like a baby.  I recommend the book if you have any sort of emotional constipation because if it does not make you cry then you are in fact a robot and you might want to check in with your controlling robot master. 

Sometimes we forget how profound the lives of regular people can be.  It is a nice reminder to just stop and listen.  The Civilians presentation and format allows you to focus on these unexplored lives without distraction.  The monologues get the proper attention without requiring any other theatrical devices.  Even with a heavy subject like Death, the show was well-curated with ups and downs, laughs and sadness. A definite recommend and I would check out this podcast when it becomes available.

*The program did not list which actors performed which monologues.  I hope I have correctly identified them.

No comments:

Post a Comment