Deathlandia: THE UNDERTAKING, Steven Cosson, The Civilians in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani, BAM Next Wave

Photo credit: Richard Termine

Photo credit: Richard Termine

The Undertaking, a self-conscious documentary, asks a host of interviewees: what happens after we die? The “embalming school dropout” tells us that organs liquefy and emit gases that threaten to explode the integrity of the dead body. So, they plug holes with screws and super glue and up-sell the bereaved “sealer coffins,” all to contain the unruly events of decomposition.

Writer-director Steven Cosson wants to exhume some of those uglier, terrifying silences that surround the mysteries of death and dying. But, he knows – with such a grand subject – the trick is negotiating the Scylla of bland universality and the Charybdis of finding a particular dramatic angle.  

So, they go meta. “Steve” (Dan Domingues) and “Lydia” (Irene Lucio) are pals, New York arty-intellectual 40-something doubles for the show’s writer and creative collaborator. Steve, a somewhat anxious gay man whose mom suffers in a nursing home with MS, is in the midst of making a play about death based on interviews with a “cemetery enthusiast,” a former soldier, philosopher Simon Critchley, Dina a cancer survivor, practitioners who guide terminally ill patients on therapeutic acid trips, and, at the outset of the show, Lydia, his animated Colombian artist friend who confronted mortality while under the influence of Ayahuasca. A giant projection of a red record button starts the show, and we meet Steve, tape recorder-ready, in her funereal-chic white and silver studio.

But Lydia, a sometimes stereotypical-feeling ‘wise-Latina-who-knows-better’ refuses to tell him the story. Instead, she implores him to reconsider the nature of his project and the necessity to insert himself into it. Acting as his auto-ethnographic unconscious, Lydia voices the truism that the documentarian is inevitably a part of the document, and perhaps transparency is an ethical and creative imperative here (she tells Steve, “the thing looked at looks back at you.”)

And, as his friend, she insists, it would probably be psychologically cathartic for Steve to explore his fears and why he’s interested in all of this death stuff anyway. To do this, she offers her expert services as “psychopomp,” or a personal guide to the underworld.

Between buddy-banter on death and swapping secret anxieties (ranging from immediately getting hit by a car after dropping your kid off at pre-K to dying alone with a colostomy bag as your only friend) the two deftly perform in-character monologues drawn from Steve’s interviews. Each offer idiosyncratic glimpses into the mindset of terminally ill patients, the grotesque workings of the death industry, and the troubling language of end-of-life care. We learn that so-called “doing everything” to save someone, an option many could not fathom denying in the moment, actually entails an aggressive set of medical interventions that involve breaking ribs and extreme sedation.

Throughout, I kept hearing echoes of the past few year’s reported stories on things like eco-burial in the New York Times Magazine, a piece by a doctor in The New Yorker on his end-of-life choices, and another one on the therapeutic use of hallucinogenic drugs. I’m also pretty sure that I may know the “cemetery enthusiast,” a scholar-artist I met in grad school who made a documentary about Hart’s Island, and researched the mass graves underlying many of New York City’s public parks and squares.

And, yes, I wake up sometimes in the middle of the night and check if my partner is still breathing. Yes, my dad, a staunch atheist was nearly killed when my mom was pregnant with me and described having the classic white-light near-death experience. And, yes, after reading that eco-burial piece, I would love to naturally decompose into fertilizer. I’m guessing many in the audience also found some space to reflect on their own personal stories and associations with death.

But somehow, even when Lydia and Steve downed a bottle of white wine, tequila shots, and donned animal pelts and golden gloves for their underworld trip, the theatrical journey didn’t quite move me past that shared intellectualized curiosity. The variety of aesthetic and academic associations (even Jacques Derrida makes a sonic appearance) failed to lend emotional or historic heft to what Cosson and Mitrani seem to want us to feel along with them. Save for a few moments, and some visually gorgeous lighting and projections (Thomas Dunn and Tal Yarden), I was game for them to push deeper.

This is not to say there weren’t some devastating and beautiful moments. In one clever projection, images of the two as they start their journey are overlaid onto a black and white giant screening of Cocteau’s film Orpheus. And Steve’s description of his grandfather failing to sit down, paralyzed, because he forgot the automatic sequence of which body part to move first was more evocative than anything else I’ve ever read or heard about the particular trauma of Alzheimer’s. And, from within the silly underworld pillow-fort that the two drunkenly construct, Steve’s own admittance of how being a gay man in the wake of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. irrevocably and awfully binds romantic desire and passion to death.   

Toward the end, Lydia, in one of the too-many moments when she seems to have all the answers, recites Duchamp’s epitaph, “It’s always the others who die.” Cosson and Mitrani seem committed to dismantling the regular ways we keep death at such a distance. In one of their last conversations, on a sun-dappled bench in Fort Greene park, Lydia shares what she calls “the most unoriginal thought” she’s ever had, but she insists— it’s different “when you feel it.” I don’t recall her insight. And this seems the crux of the show’s major challenge, to translate an ontological inquiry into the visceral language of our hearts and bones, in addition to our minds.

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