By Hazen Cuyler
It’s not surprising that The Civilians was the first theatre company to earn a residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Their remounted production of The Undertaking, now playing at 59E59 Theaters, blurs the line between theatre and fine art installation. Written and Directed by the talented Steve Cosson, Undertaking is a fascinating dialogue whose characters, sounds and immersive imagery further develop our relationship with death. If you’re a big fan of Richard Linklater dialogue, then this production is guaranteed to captivate. But Undertaking’s cool, intellectual discussions and evocative packaging make a departure from the typical play whose meaning is more directly derived from human behavior and circumstance.
The play begins with Steve, a writer and director, conducting interviews on death for an upcoming play with his company, The Civilians (You may have noticed some recurring names). He’s recording an interview with Lydia at her photography studio. Lydia asks him why in the world he’s tackling this subject. He gives Lydia an unconvincing answer, which she doesn’t buy. “I don’t do personal,” Steve unconvincingly explains. And so, of course, we spend the remaining hour and twenty minutes waiting for him to recognize he’s full of shit.
Aysan Celik and Dan Domingues tackle a host of characters including Lydia and Steve, respectively. They seamlessly transform from one detailed character study to the next, moving with ease through fascinating monologue testimonials. These hyper-realistic interviews recall moments of incredible despair and trauma though surprisingly sober eyes. And that experience is strangely affecting because watching a character soberly recall deep pain removes immediacy. So the experience becomes fascinating but detached.
At fleeting moments I would stop and look around only to realize the absence of conflict. Every character, though played with great skill, basically gets along with every other character. The Undertaking holds less immediate dramatic tension than most plays you’ll see. However, when Lydia and Steve commit to dissecting and resolving Steve’s fear of death, we see conflict not as two colliding forces, but an emotional journey of one man who rejects his fear of death and then transitions to become more in touch with his fears and anxieties. And then he cries a lot. And that is closer to the point; that our death is our own. Each of us experience it, do battle with it and work to live alongside these fears. In an interview later on the play, a woman explains her relationship to death: Everything will be gone, even Einstein and Aristotle. She did not exist for billions of years before life and will not exist for billions of years after life. It’s not the only opinion. But it is resounding in its placement of the piece.
Within the confines of Marsha Ginsberg’s set, white walls of simple plastic streamers cascade from ceiling to painted white floor. Live plants and animal skins tastefully organize a living atmosphere within Lydia’s sterile photography studio. It’s like reverence to life within a plastic heaven. The bright white, clean set is an easy canvas for Tal Yarden’s masterful projections. All-encompassing philosophical and religious images engulf the space. Ravens soar at impossible heights. Forests ensnare everything below. His backgrounds during interviews begin like a blurred Chuck Close painting and become clear, revealing core values to each character. Mikhail Fiksel’s sound pops in and out. We hear interdimensional echoes of interspersed audio flashbacks from past interviews. Thomas Dunn’s lighting shutters us in and out of scenes in the blink of an eye.
And then there is the conductor of this modern piece of theatre art. Mr. Cosson orchestrates countless nuanced, specifically placed elements. Aside from sculpting the impressively crafted script, coordinating sound with set with light with projections, and guiding the creation of many vivid characters on stage, Mr. Cosson has created a new, accessible dramatized symposium on death. Those fortunate enough to see The Undertaking, may find something necessary to accept death as an inevitable part of life. And once accepted we recognize that the goal is not to experience a peaceful eternity in death, but to live a peaceful finite life.
The play comes to a close with Steve and Lydia in a bright park together. Birds sing, an ice cream truck is in the distance. Steve, now more emotionally available, is crying. Lydia says “I believe in the possibility of everything… So it’s still a mystery. You know what I mean? It’s all so fucking mysterious.” And so there we are. The play leaves us feeling, mostly the way we did before. But perhaps with a greater sense of responsibility. To place further value on this life and not worry so much about the next one. And if there isn’t a next one, we won’t know anyway. And like Steve says when he comes to this realization, “fuck.”
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