By Bob Shuman
In Steve Cosson’s stage documentary on dying , The Undertaking (conceived in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani)–playing until February 4, at 59E59–vibrant, theatrical life comes from Aysan Celik and Dan Domingues jumping in and out of characters, like ones possessed, “ventriloquizing.” The term, discussed by philosopher Simon Critchley, who is impersonated in the show (and has been interviewed for it) posits that actors, in character, are haunted by ghosts (the dramatic role itself), “a being about whom we cannot know for sure whether it is alive or dead. It seems to be both.” Because Cosson provides a number of varied personalities in the work, The Undertaking highlights the transformative abilities of its two actors, speaking verbatim dialogue and imitating the playwright’s interviewees (whom the audience hears in recordings), whether they be Critchley or a South American who has eaten hallucinogenic plants, the actor and director of the Ridiculous Theatre Everett Quinton, or a woman recounting a near-death experience, among others.
Yet, despite his “palpable fear,” Cosson, who approaches current secular, perhaps faddish, thinking on dying, does not mention popular writers of the recent past, such as Harold M. Sherman and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (what Ms. Celik would do with a German accent), who could actually help him. Whether or not Marcel Duchamp has a pithy quotation about death on his gravestone only helps people think about death fashionably, and Cosson seems to limit his discussion by not incorporating wider religious or spiritual perspectives. Obviously, the subject is uncomfortable for many, yet probably most maintain thoughts similar to the writer’s: “I feel like my particular relationship to [the] fear is that it’s so constant and so integrated that I rarely even experience it as fear. I just experience it as this, uh, this sort of, u uh, disquieting presence.” Still, Cosson can’t dramatize his feeling, beyond constructing a combine and describing it. Whereas Williams, Albee, Beckett, or Bergman would show the cold terror–maybe even solemn grandeur–in moving close to death, Cosson decides to throw a blanket over his head and hide.
Director, as well as a writer, he also uses footage of classic film, a technique, in the avant-garde toolkit, overused today (also in January, Split Britches rolled clips from Dr. Strangelove for Unexploded Ordnances, for example). Orpheus, the film referred to in Cosson’s piece, can be seen as parallel to the events of The Undertaking and is also drawn from an earlier story: the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Cocteau sets his version in the modern day (the middle of the last century), and the script is the product of imaginative dramatic writing. Comparatively, Cosson has so overintellectualized his search for an understanding of dying that his performance piece can seem like a dramatic lecture or nonfiction book, a well-paced, well-produced evening of staged footnotes. He also misses dramatizing the story of his mother, not portrayed, whom the audience is told is currently in a nursing home with MS. Like Hamlet’s father, however, she may be the ghost demanding to be remembered most.
© 2018 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Photo: Dan Domingues and Aysan Celik in THE UNDERTAKING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Written and directed by Steve Cosson
Creative Collaborator and Psychopomp: Jessica Mitrani
Set and Costume Design: Marsha Ginsberg†
Lighting Design: Thomas Dunn†
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel†
Projection Design: Tal Yarden†
Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda*
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachael Gass*
Production Manager: Ron Nilson
Producer: Margaret Moll
ADDITIONAL STAFF FOR THE UNDERTAKING
Assistant Set and Costume Designer: Blake Palmer
Sound Design Associate: Lee Kinney
Dramaturgy: Jocelyn Clarke and Jacey Erwin
Interviews conducted by Steve Cosson, Jessica Mitrani, and Leonie Ettinger.
*appearing courtesy of Actors’ Equity Association
†member of United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829
Press: Karen Greco