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Theatre in Review: The Undertaking (The Civilians/59E59)

Dan Domingues, Aysan Celik. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Those intrepid investigatory theatre-makers, The Civilians, have often dared to go where angels fear to tread, bringing enlightenment and enlivening humor to such big, intractable issues as evangelical Christianity (This Beautiful City), the gentrification of Brooklyn (In the Footprint), and the pornography industry (Pretty Filthy). This time out, they're after really big game -- arguably the greatest mystery of all. The Undertaking examines the great human perplexity, that we, alone among God's creatures, live with the knowledge of death; it also probes the recollections of those who have come to the edge of extinction, only to survive. The members of this fine company are as game as ever, but it cannot be said that death becomes them. This is one of their more modest efforts -- it constitutes a single toe dipped daintily into the River Styx -- and it is, at best, modestly successful.

Instead of deploying a company of six or more, representing legions of voices, The Undertaking is a two-hander, with Dan Domingues and Aysan Celik taking on the principal roles of Steve Cosson, founding artistic director of the Civilians, and his friend, Lydia, an artist. They also slip into other characters, including Bryn, the survivor of an accident in which her car went flying into a forest: "They found my eyebrow back in underneath my hairline," she says, offering one of many skin-crawling details. A hospice nurse quietly and unemotionally describes the process of the body shutting down: "You become like a shell. Like you were once this living creature inside this body, and then as you start to leave, like, you're sort of abandoning your shell... Your fingers and toes get colder." Then there's Dinah, who -- shades of The Mushroom Cure! -- takes psilocybin to deal with the psychological ravages of her ovarian cancer. In a passage that will probably speak to many in the audience, she notes that instead of breaking open the champagne when her illness goes into remission, she was plagued with panic attacks: "Before, when I was fighting the cancer, I was just, ummm...doing something. Now, every exam was, Oh my god, is it back? Is it back?" Celik has the knack of instantaneously transforming herself from Lydia, with her expansive manner and South American accent, to these other women; the actress' seemingly effortless technique is a pleasure to behold.

Domingues is equally effective, slipping out of Steve's character into Everett Quinton, of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, who, having lost Charles Ludlam, his professional and life partner, as well as a subsequent lover and other collaborators, to AIDS, was rather put out to discover that he was HIV-free: "See, I'm not a fan of being alive, either. I'm not an optimist. I find being alive a pain in the ass." He also suavely evokes the philosopher Simon Critchley, who comments on how Shakespeare's tragedies present man as "a bare forked animal" who goes "all the way down into death." He adds, "We're saved the trip, as it were. I mean, I would rather an actor did it than I do it."

For rather too much of the time, however, these stimulating folks are preempted by Steve and Lydia and their seemingly endless talk about what it all means to them. ("Wait," Steve says. "Do you mean what I say would be in the play, too?" It's all downhill from there.) Steve is nagged by free-floating anxiety, possibly related to his mother's hospitalization for multiple sclerosis, which leaves him feeling stuck in his life and work. His inarticulate speeches about clogged emotions sound like a transcript from a dullish therapy session; they do little to make us care about his (entirely first-world) fears of death and poverty. Lydia, who has taken part in an indigenous South American ceremony, quaffing Ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew, to help her face her fears of mortality, goes all Carl Jung on us, announcing her intention to become Steve's "psychopomp," the official term for "a being who gives safe passage to the soul as it travels to the afterlife." Borrowing from Greek drama and the Jean Cocteau film Orpheus, they develop a do-it-yourself plan to visit the underworld that involves donning blindfolds, animal skins, and opera gloves -- there are sort-of reasons for this, which I won't go into -- and building "a pillow fort" inside Lydia's studio, where they wait for the portal to the next world to open. Watching these two overaged adolescents take part in this futile exercise, I began to feel Steve's main problem is that, as a boy, he was never sent to summer camp.

It's too bad, because the other characters are so eloquent. The Undertaking is far from a disaster -- the actors are too skillful, the supporting characters too engaging, and the running time, thanks to Cosson's light-touch direction, is a trim eighty minutes. Still, it drags during its last quarter, and a genuinely stimulating conversation keeps getting undermined by the spectacle of two grown adults acting like a pair of kindergartners, dressing up and building play castles. Next to the company's better efforts, The Undertaking comes off as a rather thin exercise diluted by excessive navel-gazing. (Jessica Mitrani is billed as creative collaborator and psychopomp, and it's anybody's guess what that's about.) As is usually the case with Civilians productions, the design elements are sleek and inventive. Marsha Ginsberg's set, depicting Lydia's studio, is surrounded by a curtain of white plastic strips that works neatly as a screen for Tal Yarden's projections, which combine colorful renderings of locations mentioned in the script with live camera feeds and alluring excerpts from the Cocteau film. (It's unclear why someone felt the need for him to project the word "psychopomp" on the stage each time it is uttered.) Thomas Dunn's lighting has a nicely fluid quality; it also works well with the projections. In addition to a variety of effects, Mikhail Fiksel's sound design includes bits of interviews with the real people interviewed; these are sometimes cleverly layered over the actor's voices.

In its questing spirit and sleek staging, The Undertaking is unmistakably a work of the Civilians. However, the journey of discovery ends up for quite a stretch in becalmed waters. This time out, the creators have forgotten a basic fact: Their subjects are more interesting than they are. -- David Barbour

(18 January 2018)

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