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The Civilians' latest play looks at the end of life
Although the inevitability of death is something we all have in common, few of us enjoy contemplating it. But Steve Cosson, the artistic director of the Obie-winning investigative theatre company The Civilians, has spent a great deal of time thinking about it over the past few years, both professionally and personally. So it makes sense that the writer-director decided to insert himself as a character in The Undertaking, a playful exploration of death currently running at 59E59 Theaters.
Like other Civilians shows such as Gone Missing, This Beautiful City, and You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents' Divorce, The Undertaking is a multiperspective meditation on a theme crafted from extensive interviews with real people. This is the first time Cosson has injected himself into a narrative, in part because he was developing the show while watching his mother struggle with MS in a nursing home. "Death had been something that had been on my Civilians wish list for a long time," says Cosson. "It's part of our job to go toward difficult stuff that maybe we don't necessarily know how to make a play about, or a subject that makes me personally a bit uncomfortable."
The Civilians previously examined death at two special immersive events: Be the Death of Me, which ran for two performances at Brooklyn's Irondale Center in 2013, and The End and the Beginning, a one-night-only experience that took place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur in the Egyptian Wing in 2015. Cosson interviewed his close friend, multimedia artist Jessica Mitrani, for the latter project, and their conversations ended up evolving into the heart of The Undertaking, which premiered at BAM's 2016 Next Wave Festival. In between recreated interviews with folks such as Ridiculous Theatrical Company vet Everett Quinton and British philosopher Simon Critchley, two characters named Steve and Lydia (a stage alter ego for Mitrani) discuss and dissect death at length. They even go on a virtual journey to the underworld inspired by Jean Cocteau's 1950 film Orpheus.
Frequent Civilians collaborator Dan Domingues plays Steve, yet he's purposefully not doing an impression of Cosson. "We agreed that my Steve Cosson is a character in this play, so I sort of detached from the idea early on that I was playing Steve," explains Domingues. "Sometimes in rehearsal I would get shaken up and realize, oh wait, I am playing the guy who's sitting at the table directing me! I think that's one of the unique aspects of the show, it has that metatheatrical element."
For longtime Civilians fans, it's hard to watch The Undertaking without thinking about songwriter Michael Friedman, whose death from AIDS last fall at age 41 rocked the theatre world. Although best known for Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Friedman was a founding associate artist with The Civilians and worked on many of the company's productions.
His death isn't mentioned in The Undertaking, though it was certainly on Cosson's mind as he did rewrites for this run. But he opted to keep the show set in 2016, so the character of Steve exists at a time prior to Friedman's passing.
"I have a very different relationship to death and dying now than I did when we first did this show," Cosson says. "Michael was certainly the closest friend to have died in my life. So I have a deeper understanding of just how difficult it is to express the emotional experience of grief, and how hard it is for the people who are left behind, especially when it's somebody whose life is cut short. I think a lot of what's in the show is all of the stuff that happens in our emotional lives because of our anxieties about death. It's a fear of an idea and it's a lot of imaginings."
For Domingues, who was in his mid-twenties when his father was killed in a workplace accident, The Undertaking has made him reconsider his relationship to death. "I used to be terrified of going out the way my dad did, very violently," Domingues says. "Now I am thinking about a lot of what we talk about in the play, watching other people in your life die, how you take that in and accept it. Back then death was more visceral for me. Now it's more spiritual and emotional. How are you going to create your legacy? What are you going to leave behind?"
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for The Undertaking. Go here to browse our current offers.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Dan Domingues in The Undertaking. Photos by Carol Rosegg.