Theater Review: I Come Not to Bury The Undertaking

From The Undertaking, at BAM. Photo: Richard Termine

Like “humanistic Judaism,” the term “investigative theater” proposes an invidious distinction. All theater investigates. What the Civilians do under that rubric is merely more literal than what most companies do. Many of the their productions are created by choosing a topic and then interviewing lots of people with knowledge of it, whether expert or lay; the interviews are then edited and cobbled into a script and enacted onstage. In this way the Civilians have covered such themes as loss (in Gone Missing), the porn industry (Pretty Filthy), evangelicals (This Beautiful City), and divorce (Tales From My Parents’ Divorce). The results are usually informative, sometimes obvious, frequently becalmed, especially in comparison with the spellbinding results that Nilaja Sun, Anna Deavere Smith, Sarah Jones, and other fact-based dramatists achieve using similar methods. Is the difference that those three women work solo?

Or are they listening differently? Though the Civilians’ latest piece, The Undertaking, which opened last night as part of BAM’s Next Wave festival, is entirely drawn from recorded interviews, it has, paradoxically, a claustrophobic quality usually associated with monologues. Perhaps that’s because the subject — note the punning title — is death, but more likely it is because the structure that the playwright and director Steve Cosson came up with is so self-canceling. The Undertaking is basically his own Orpheus journey into the underworld, not to retrieve love but to rid himself of the fear of death. His spirit guide (or psychopomp, as he puts it, using the Greek term) is a woman named Lydia, based on the Colombian artist Jessica Mitrani, who is credited in the program as a “creative collaborator.” Ostensibly, Steve has come to her to record for this project the story of the Amazonian “vine of death” ritual in which she has participated, but despite the tape recorder running, we never really hear it. Instead, Lydia encourages Steve to devise his own ritual, which involves tequila, animal skins, a pillow fort, and a bounce umbrella from her studio. He will descend into his psychic hell the same way Dionysus did in The Frogs: disguised as Hercules.

This is amusing but completely lacking in drama; if Lydia (Irene Lucio) must convince Steve to put himself onstage despite his wish to avoid exposure, who but dramaturgs can be invested in the outcome? In any case, we see that the issue has already been settled because here Steve is, in the person of actor Dan Domingues. Nor does any external conflict arise in a ritual that is, by its nature, entirely psychological. Moving as his fears may be — and it’s hard not to be moved by anyone’s mortality issues — they make for a saggy play, even at just 80 minutes. To disguise the problem, of which they are evidently aware, Cosson and his designers offer a great deal of distraction and illustration. Expert lighting (by Thomas Dunn) and sound (by Mikhail Fiksel) help suggest action that is otherwise purely notional; projections by Tal Yarden fill the neutral stage space (by Marsha Ginsberg) with beautiful and suggestive imagery. This sometimes works too well; extended film excerpts from Cocteau’s gorgeous Orpheus shame the capabilities of the stage, at least as used here.

More relevant to the Civilians’ investigative-theater methodology, Cosson interrupts the main story with short segments of testimony from the kinds of subjects you could almost predict he’d canvass: an end-of-life nurse, an embalmer, an ovarian-cancer patient, an Iraq War soldier, and, in a brief snippet, the dying Derrida. Though beautifully impersonated by the multitasking Lucio and Domingues, what they offer is mostly elementary deathology, producing approximately the same insight as that achieved by reading the first page of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in a college dorm, stoned. Nor are enough voices or experiences transcribed to suggest, as some Civilians productions do, a comprehensive treatment. Eventually you realize that Steve’s psychodrama is all the drama you’re going to get here, and meaningful as it surely was to him — I’m not being snarky — its meaningfulness, merely stated and discussed but not dramatized, doesn’t carry. Were it not for the terrific performances of the two actors, it would not even get past the white box of the stage space, which eventually comes to seem like a chic coffin.

The Undertaking is at the BAM Fisher Theater through September 25.