Sunday, June 30, 2013

Be The Death of Me: Stories of Death, Dying and Life

"We all have to deal with this sooner or later."
Epic in scope but grounded in the documentary-style intimacy that makes their investigative theater approach powerful and effective, The Civilians's new work Be The Death of Me, uses immersive theater to weave together a taut fabric of stories about death.  Using the sound of subway train doors opening and closing as the trigger for stories to stop and start, this play, directed by Steve Cosson, reminds us that there are eight million stories in the naked city.  These stories are all around us. You just need a few minutes to lend an ear to one.

Using a former church as the setting, and establishing story stations around multiple levels of the space, the audience starts out by choosing from an array of performers doing short monologues.  Like a scavenger hunt for stories, you race around the building to listen in, and small groups form around each storyteller.  All the stories are timed to start and end approximately around the same moment, with the chime of the subway doors closing as your signal.  The chatter suddenly increases as the voices of actors rise around you.  Seated on thrones, sofas, beds, and chairs, you hear the cacophony of stories being told all over the large room, as you listen to a vampire explain his theories of immortality, a futurist speaking of consciousness transferred to computers, and a woman who communes with spirits.  As some stories end moments before others, the actors fall silent (turning to their cell phone, leaving the spotlight, falling asleep) and a quiet starts to fall again leaving a few lone voices finishing their tales.   Each story dies a little death.  And then as the subway doors chime again, the stories are reborn to a new audience.

This sound bubble grows and shrinks with each turn and you are conscious of the larger purpose of the immersive piece.  You can take away an individualized experience within a communal framework.  As one character in one monologue I heard said, everyone deals with death differently.  And so you tailor a personalized story adventure for yourself. But you feel the presence of others.  You are not alone. 
"It was immense.  It was infinite."
And personal reactions vary.  I noticed one couple clutching each other as they left a story about a love cut short by death, a young boy attending the show with his Dad was startled when the word penis was spoken and he looked to his father for assurance, and I wiped tears away as an EMT talks about the young man she could not save.

The structure of Be The Death of Me then moves from the small to the grand.  The audience is gathered to listen to longer stories together in one central space.  From balconies to far corners of the room, stories rise up: a mother who has lost her baby (Colleen Werthmann), a suicide survivor who tries to explain the pain she has felt (Nina Hellman), a woman who frequently has out of body experiences (Jeanine Serralles), and a man who drowns and returns to life (Daniel Jenkins).  Interspersed between the longer stories are pop-up moments where the actors pull a chair into a spotlight and start speaking.  The quiet hush that accompanied the group story is broken by the loud chatter of many stories being told at the same time.  The audience then gathers close together, cross-legged on the floor like around a campfire story  You catch whatever story is being told closest to you.  You lean in to hear, you catch pieces, you miss others.

The shuffling of chairs and sudden emergence of stories being told just over your shoulder mimics the ebb and flow of city life.  Have you ever found yourself on a subway and among the din of talking and noise, a story starts to emerge.  You hear snippets.  The public and private blend and blur.  You lean in to try to hear.  I once became so riveted and involved in the story a woman was telling about herself that I changed trains with her so I could keep listening.

Of all the stories, my first was the one that stayed with me the most.  The modern-day vampire's philosophy that perhaps we extend life by telling stories about those who have died was most appealing to me.  They cannot really have died if we are re-enacting, sharing, and bringing them back to our thoughts through stories.

"The need to stop hurting.  Not the same as choosing death."
There's no question I am a fan of the work The Civilians do (Let Me Ascertain You: Death, LGBTQ).  I have not had a lot of chances to see much of their long-form work (Mr. Burns).  But Cosson's direction and vision for this show binds together the separate stories into a cohesive whole.  Visually, he uses projections at times but not all of the time.  There are comic projections to punctuate the story of a funeral home worker who takes issue with the "death industry." Jeanine Serralles, with her animated features and maniacal laughter, tells her story to a camera and her visage is projected on the wall as she speaks her monologue--it comes across as ghostly with a slight time delay.  And throughout images of the subway arriving and departing stations create a visual through-line for the piece.  The subway sequences help mark time.  They give the play a feeling of a unified direction and enhance the public/private feeling that the piece has overall.

And in the end, the experience that Be the Death Me most resembles is life coping with death.    Those left behind gather together.  We share in rituals.  We try to understand or make sense of events.  At times we feel nothing, other times we are overcome with emotions.  We listen to stories as part of the ritual of death--they may be religious, familial, or personal stories. We grasp for the narrative and we long for meaning.  The Civilians' show delivers both.

Disclosure:  Before seeing the show, I made a donation to The Civilians to support further development of this project.  I received a complimentary ticket to the show but I also purchased a ticket to attend.

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