As published in EDGE on June 30, 2013.
Walking up a creaky, faded yellow staircase of a historic church, guests are handed maps and the quick instructions: “Head to the number of your station on the back. Mind 7 and 8, they are tricky to find.”
Map in hand, everyone scurries into a large, open room. A balcony surrounds the edges, providing an upstairs with a large open center. The room is rather empty except for a mattress with messy sheets, a bicycle, a chair with crayons and toy trucks, and a waiting room-style chair. Upstairs there’s a bar where people can grab drinks in preparation for a night of meetings with various death experts.
“Be the Death of Me,” an investigation, installation performance at the Irondale Center, was developed through months of interviews done by The Civilians creative team. The show covers various aspects of death.
The performance starts by visiting set-up stations in which an actor discusses his experience with death. Next, select monologues are given, with everyone watching a single actor followed by circles of light indicating specific performances, arranged in the main area like the game “Twister.” Guests decide to whom to listen, gathering on the floor around each actor. The show ends with a few additional monologues sporadically appearing one after the next around the theater.
One theme is the future of conscious meets body. For example, a man in glasses describes his obsession with efficiency, juxtaposed as he stands in a cramped stairwell, and how soon our consciences will be uploaded in “the cloud” so that if our bodies are ruined, we can upload our conscience, continuing to live as a robot.
Medical care and cost was another touchy subject as there are the combative forces of the extreme emotion of death and the practicality of this natural phenomenon. For example, one women’s child is born dead. The hospital encourages her to have her child buried on “Heart Island,” as is common procedure, but she feels betrayed to discover her child is buried in a grave of twenty babies.
To visit its “grave,” she may stand on an atrium, overlooking a field of buried dead babies. The theme of the commonality of death emerges again as a funeral house director’s son describes seeing bodies lined up and embalmed, one’s arterial wound flushing blood onto its suit.
The question of how someone should feel about death is also discussed. The women whose child died prematurely feels guilt and regret in not wanting to hold her lifeless baby in the moment following its birth. In another story, a family therapist mentions how a family asked her to speak to their child about the death of her brother. In the therapist’s game, she understood her brother was dead, removing the tube from a doll’s mouth.
At the end of the session, the girl skips out, not sad, but happy that her sibling is in a better place. The parents expected the therapist to make their daughter feel sadness as this is how they felt she should feel. But, children do not always react in the same way as adults.
The main theme is that we are in this life for a purpose and cannot leave until this is fulfilled. When the actors are in pools of light spread across the main floor, the director orchestrated all the characters finish early but one. This allows the audience to eavesdrop on the old man repeatedly asking: “But what is our purpose? Why are you here?”
All the stories originate from New Yorkers, creating an added level of empathy. For example, a graveyard tour director exclaims, “Let’s face it, if you don’t have a lot of money, you are going to have to be buried in Jersey!” In between scenes, a subway car rolling in and out of a station is projected on the wall, a metaphor for our transition through time and space.
The performance portrays various perspectives on death in a captivating way. The constant need to move breaks up the monotony and allows moments for reflection between intense personal stories. The actors effectively re-enact the dialogs, showing the true emotion of the characters and also their reflection on their intense encounters with death and the dying. They effectively portray the rationalizing of the emotional, life changing experiences.
The performance is ideal for all those curious about death. In the first portion and the “Twister” arrangement, there is not enough time to see all the actors, thus make sure to prioritize the scenes that look the most interesting.
For original, click here.