Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Undertaking - A Pallid Examination of the Dark Side

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

A theatrical documentarian gets pulled into his own subject in The Undertaking, now at 59E59 Theaters.

After working on various projects for the investigative theatrical group The Civilians over the years, Steve (Dan Domingues), has decided that it’s time to "go after the big one, per se". The big one in this case being Death, in all its relevant aspects. How different people in different cultures deal with it; how people rationalize surviving near-death experiences; why do some people constantly challenge death; and what does it mean for who are left behind when death strikes?

After interviewing such people as an embalmer and a crime scene cleaner, Steve has arranged to meet with Lydia (Aysan Celik). A performance artist, while in Brazil, she once participated in a ritual called "the vine of death". However as Steve explains what he's trying to do, Lydia begins to suspect that he's more emotionally invested in the subject than he’s letting on. When she calls him on this, Steve goes quickly into defensive mode, saying "he doesn't do personal". Steve is thrown even more off his game when Lydia begins to tape him for her own performance piece.

As the audience soon finds out, Steve does indeed have a personal connection to death; via his mother’s battle with multiple sclerosis. Her ever-worsening condition forcing him to realize he may one day soon have to go on without her. In an attempt to ease his pain, Lydia offers to conduct Steve on a spiritual journey. One where he may be able to find the answers he seeks.

Perhaps the most troubling question when it comes to death, and one which Steve eventually verbalizes, is what happens if there is nothing beyond our current state of being? What if, when you die, you simply cease to exist, forever? Though, as the piece makes clear, if there really is no such thing as an afterlife - however one personally defines it - we’ll never know. Therefore, all one can do is to go on with one's life as best they can.

Yet for all its talk about death - with references ranging from the physical to the spiritual to the artistic - The Undertaking never breaks any new ground, nor offers any great de-mystification on the subject. Indeed, one could get just as much information from a self-help book or motivational lecture. Though the show does toss in an interesting bit of New York City trivia when it mentions that such places as Union Square, Madison Square Park and Washington Square Park were once the site of mass graves.

The show’s rambling connection to its subject matter is also visible through the journey Lydia takes Steve on. All off which happens in the confines of her apartment. While one can certainly recognize the belief Lydia feels in the process, her character having previously gone through an awakening in this regard, we get no “aha” moment or flash of incite from Steve; other than a bit of quiet resignation in the final moments of the play. Since Steve is a stand-in for the audience who are, by extension, taking this journey with him, they end up basically out in the cold with no new understandings as to what the show purports to explore. This lack of depth in regards to Steve’s character is also why Celik comes off far better than Domingues in the acting department.

More than simply two people sitting around talking, The Undertaking is also a multi-media presentation. The work including scenes from the 1950 film Orpheus directed by Jean Cocteau, as well as audio interviews from other people Steve has talked to - Celik and Domingues voicing the different characters. All of which only serves to further defuse the show's central message. By tossing in so many references and viewpoints, it makes the play seem disjoined when it should be cohesive, and bland when it should be personal. Just about all of these problems coming from the creators' conception of what the piece should be. Steve Cosson's continually meandering text and rather weak direction keeps the play moving in first gear throughout. With the entire experience feeling far longer than its actual running time.

The show’s technical efforts are good, particularly Tal Yarden’s production design and Mikhail Fiksel’s work in the sound department. However, while their efforts help to make the show more interesting, they are not able to make it any more substantial.

The premise behind The Undertaking is certainly one offering numerous possibilities. Sadly, what ends up being presented on stage doesn’t really go anywhere.

The Undertaking
Written and Directed by Steve Cosson

Conceived in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani

Featuring: Aysan Celik (Lydia and others), Dan Domingues (Steve and others)

Creative Collaborator and Psychopomp: Jessica Mitrani
Set and Costume Design: Marsha Ginsberg
Lighting Design: Thomas Dunn
Sound Design: Mikhail Fiksel
Production Design: Tal Yarden
Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda
Assistant Stage Manager: Rachel Gass
Production Manager: Ron Nilson
Producer: Margaret Moll
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 Hettinger

Presented by the Civilians at 59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Closes: February 4, 2017

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