Now in their 17th year, the Civilians have etched out a unique place for themselves in the New York theater scene. Employing what they refer to as “investigative theater,” company members gather source material as journalists, then transform their research into art. In The Undertaking, two performers, portraying multiple characters, enact real-life interviews centered on the act of dying. Lip-syncing, film appreciation, a small warehouse of electronic devices and a pillow fort are all utilized as the characters take an inward trip to the hereafter and expound on shuffling off this mortal coil. All the while, the production comments upon itself and divulges its own techniques. Death may be the subject of this play, but its theme is creation.
The work is “meta” in the extreme. Writer/director Steve Cosson, having gathered taped interviews from philosophers, survivors and death industry workers, has written a play about a character named Steve (Dan Domingues) who has conducted taped interviews with philosophers, survivors and death industry workers to turn into a play. Steve is aided in this endeavor by his friend, Lydia (Aysan Celik), a South American media artist living in New York. Lydia is fictional though bears a strong resemblance to Cosson’s creative collaborator on this project, the media artist Jessica Mitrani.
The piece begins in Lydia’s apartment with Steve questioning her about death. Her wisdom is apparent from the get-go: “Living in New York, I feel that death is nonexistent; death is almost like, hidden? Like at Whole Foods, you never see fruit rotting.” Soon she is not only waxing on about out-of-body experiences, she is drawing Steve into the interview, transforming it into a performance dialogue, while adding video components of her own. She is harboring a smartphone and throughout the evening live-streams bits of their interactions onto a large, upstage screen.
The two actors soon begin channeling Cosson’s other interviewees. They include Bryn, an artist whose heart briefly stopped beating after a horrific accident; Dinah, a cancer survivor who was treated with psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms; the British philosopher Simon Critchley; and Everett Quinton, the fabulous actor best known for his work with Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company.
In a wonderfully effective use of sound design, the actors at times stop speaking and instead mouth the words as the audio recordings of the interviewees are broadcast. This first happens when Celik delivers the words, “how my soul left my body.” It is chilling both in its theatricality and as a comment about transcendence. This transitioning grows subtler until one nearly forgets it is happening. As Domingues portrays Quinton in a touching scene about surviving the AIDS epidemic, their two voices essentially become interchangeable.
Halfway through the production, Lydia’s video influence begins outweighing Steve’s audio playlist, most evidently in her lengthy deconstruction of a scene from Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus (1950). With the movie playing on Lydia’s laptop and projected on the upstage screen, she notes that when Orpheus visits the underworld, he has the help of a guide. Soon enough, Lydia is playing Steve’s guide in their own cinematic purgatory. They construct a fort of pillows and blankets and crawl inside, leaving the audience to watch the screen, where we see Steve teleport into black and white to face his own mortality. That the interviewer would become his own subject was inevitable from the moment Lydia began drawing him in, but it also speaks to the fact that his other subjects are intriguing at first, then lose their luster, in the way that truth is often duller than fiction, and in the way that interviewees are not playwrights. The details of Bryn’s near-death are captivating, but her description of being dead amid “celestial beings” feels hokey. Dinah’s mushroom trip also bogs down in contemplation of the universe. And Quinton grows unsympathetic at the end, remarking, “I find being alive a pain in the ass.”
Pity the actor tasked with portraying his own director, but Domingues pulls off a likable Steve, somewhere between cool and collected and emotionally withdrawn. Lydia is his opposite, with Celik bringing a hint of magic realism to the role along with a slight South American accent and lively body language. Fortunately, her tech skills are on point as well, for the pacing of this show lives and dies by its light and sound cues. She and the tech team make it look effortless. It’s hard to decide if the brightly lit set, with its walls made from dangling strips of white plastic (designed by Marsha Ginsberg), looks more like heaven, a walk-in cooler or an oversized shower stall. But any of those would be appropriate for this look at the afterlife, drawn from raw material and bathed in self-reflection.
The Undertaking runs through Feb. 4 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison avenues). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 members) via Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, or by visiting 59e59.org.