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Theatre in Review: The Briefly Dead (Adjusted Realists/59E59)

Mia Isabella Aguirre, Ben Kaufman. Photo: Mia Isabella Photography/Brandon Saloy.

Death is the thing with feathers in Stephen Kaliski's new play. Smartly dressed, by Peri Grabin Leong, in a black jumpsuit with matching feathers on her shoulders and a cunning little hat bedecked with monarch butterflies -- let's not forget the veil -- the Grim Reaper, as impersonated by Mia Isabella Aguirre, is half-woman, half-avian, an avenging angel from the Underworld ready to snatch souls back to the darkness from whence they came. She has a low opinion of her human clientele, too. Scanning the audience with a mask of amused contempt, she notes acidly that most of us mortals are moral weaklings, unwilling or unable to stick to the deal handed to us, the terms of which are as follows: "Part One: I give you everything. The whole shebang. The kitchen sink. You could call it your life, for lack of a better term. Part Two: When your time's up, you give your life back. VoilĂ ! No money, no red tape, just a simple gentleman's agreement."

However, she adds, it is rarely that simple. "When the dread hour comes, you still say no. You hang on. And that's not the agreement....So the next time you cling to life, think about who's in breach of contract." She isn't, she adds, corrupt: "You're just cheap customers." After a pained silence, she adds, "People, grow up, for the love of God!"

Death is the most interesting figure by far in this retelling of the Greek myth of Alcestis, who, learning that her husband, Admetos, was scheduled to die, offered to take his place. When Admetos' grief proved to be unappeasable, his friend Heracles volunteered to retrieve her from the Underworld, accomplishing the task in short order. However, as our feathered friend points out, the effort wasn't entirely successful: Alcestis left behind her soul, returning to life a blank slate with no memories of her marriage and children. Heracles left behind a piece of his soul, too, shedding the painful memory of having slain his own offspring. Thus, their re-entry is less than triumphal: She is like a child learning about the world for the first time, and he flies into a childish rage whenever a certain awful recollection threatens to break through.

This is a tough premise for an audience; it is hard to identify with Alcestis, since she comes across as a creature from another world, and a two-dimensional one, at that. Under Elizabeth Ostler's direction, there are some striking moments -- for example, when Alcestis, trying to prepare a meal, stares at a teabag in wonderment, pops it briefly in her mouth, then dumps it into an empty bowl. But because we haven't seen her earlier life, which would have given us the experience of seeing her care about something, there's very little at stake. Watching Admetos trying to rekindle a sense of recognition in Alcestis is at first poignant, then wearying; we're asked to become engaged with a relationship that we haven't really seen. (Heracles comes and goes, never fulfilling the interest generated by his early appearances.)

Adding to the difficulty, The Briefly Dead is situated in a kind of temporal halfway house in which Greek royalty and supernatural events cohabit with sushi-dinner dates, television broadcasts, and the poems of Sylvia Plath. Similarly, the characters are figures from myth in modern dress, gifted neither with heroic stature nor the telling details that would give them psychological shading. Kaliski's dialogue never casts a spell, lacking as it does both the heft of tragedy and a cutting, contemporary wit. (The play is taken from Euripides, the most skeptical of tragedians.) The movement sequence, in which Alcestis recovers her memories, is rather drawn-out and lacking in excitement. And when it is revealed that, because of Alcestis' return, the world has been thrown out of balance (the details of which are left frustratingly vague) and a terrible decision must be made, it simply doesn't seem all that important.

Aside from Aguirre, who presides over the action with a godly distaste for the messy problems of mortals, Jenna Zafiropoulos captures Alcestis' bafflement at the world she calls home, and she summons up some imperial diva attitude when her sense of self is restored. Ben Kaufman's Admetos is touching in his faith that even this seemingly intractable situation can be fixed, and that some recognizable emotion can be coaxed out of the woman he loves. Paul Hinkes' Heracles is a classic Freudian case, sitting on a terrible secret that he tries to conceal from himself with boisterous behavior. I also liked Kristin Fulton as Admetos' smooth second-in-command, who runs afoul of Alcestis. Aside from Leong's clever costumes -- Heracles sports cargo pants and a white T-shirt with a Greek shield embossed on it -- Kyu Shin's simple set design and Jessica Greenberg's lighting and sound are all good enough. Ostler also designed the shadow puppets of Alcestis' and Admetos' children.

I will add that I saw The Briefly Dead under less-than-ideal circumstances. During Death's opening monologue, a phone went off -- hard to ignore in the fifty-seat Theater C at 59E59 -- and the offending owner was the last to realize what was happening. Well, these things will occur -- but her phone rang three more times at different points, each time long enough to provide a major distraction. (Why she was unable, or unwilling, to turn the damned thing off is a mystery known only to the gods on Olympus.) Then, during the play's climax, with lives and possibly a civilization hanging in the balance, Our Lady of the Annoying Phone decided to depart, taking her sweet time to gather up her various belongings. (The theatre has an unusually efficient staff and the young lady in charge of the house did her level best to control the situation, but one can only do so much.) Everyone in the cast of The Briefly Dead bravely soldiered on, seemingly unaffected by the chaos unfolding right in front of them. I didn't much care for the play, but one thing is clear -- these talented young people are real pros; with nerves like that, they'll go far in show business. -- David Barbour

(29 November 2017)

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