by Julie Congress · August 16, 2014
I had the pleasure of taking in a double feature of FringeNYC shows on Tuesday - one a celebration of death and one a celebration of life and family. The juxtaposition of the two 1) is exactly what FringeNYC is all about and 2) has got me thinking a lot about both a current trend in the depictions of death onstage and the importance of family/nurture in shaping who we are. Read on!
Throughout time, cultures have personified death, giving a face to that most frightening of inevitabilities; the Grim Reaper, the Angel of Death, Santa Muerte and now…let’s give it up, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, in a big round of applause for Death! Writer/performer Anne Brashier’s brief one-woman show The Most Fun Funeral! replaces a cowl for sequined tights and shrug, a scythe for audience giveaways and a 7-foot animate skeleton for a very animated game show host full of ear-to-ear smiles and commercial-style inflection.
After bantering with the audience for a bit, conducting a bit of death trivia and even bringing yours truly up onstage to verbally execute the Reaper’s exit poll (Favorite memory? Biggest fear? Hmm, I guess I would rather listen to “Let It Be” as I cross to the other side), we get to the carcass of the story. Poor Ophelia (also played by Brashier) is about to die. Before the Reaper goes and pulls the plug, so to speak, she takes us, her studio audience, through a chronological glimpse into Ophelia’s previous experiences with Death (she’ll need this footage for the final video montage that Ophelia gets to watch at the very end!). The Reaper’s act is henceforth interspersed with glimpses into this life that is about to end – from Brashier as a little girl playing mini-golf as her mother tragically dies to speaking out at her grandparents’ funeral as a slightly inebriated young adult.
The proceeds from The Most Fun Funeral! Benefit Our House: Grief Support for Kids & Families so I know Brashier has her heart in the right place. But I, a dozen hours after learning of the death of Robin Williams, found it very difficult to connect with the numerous, perfunctory representations of death. Perhaps in a larger, more engaged audience (it was, after all, 2pm on a Tuesday) I might have become more jovial and been swept away by the sketch comedy-style antics. Exiting the theatre, a young man remarked, “wasn’t that terrific!” so it may just be my own overly serious reaction, but The Most Fun Funeral! left me feely rather concerned for a culture that presents death so casually and frequently (I have, in fact, seen two more FringeNYC shows since which presented superficial depictions of death/suicide – perhaps I am just hyperaware of it this week or perhaps it is zeitgeist).
Death gave way to life and I found humanity in Sara Cooper’s loving, comedic family drama Things I Left on Long Island. Marny, 28, has moved home to Long Island after finding a lump in her breast and breaking up with her fiancé. Since then, she has found herself in a perpetual low-grade argument with her mother, Dolores, her grandma has taken to setting fires, her Aunt Velma can only talk about herself and Marny’s poor, sweet, potentially “special” (at least according to his mother Velma) cousin Stephen has no greater aspirations than working at Blockbuster video.
Cooper and Director Noah Himmelstein perfectly capture the rhythm of family members talking to (and sometimes at) one another. Time and time again, we watch them want to connect with one another, almost connect, and then, at the last moment, they invariably fail to listen or take unnecessary offense or grow defensive or. No conversation is ever what it appears because every member of this kooky, tight-knit family carries the baggage of their entire history together with them. At one point, Marny appeals to her mother to be nice to her and Dolores replies (to paraphrase) “why? We’re not strangers.” This isn’t the family in August Osage County though – they show their love as best they can and do try to listen to and help one another; it’s just that they continually speak with their voices a little raised, their Long Island accent adding a sharp staccato to everything they say.
Cooper is a graduate of the Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU and while Things I Left on Long Island is a play, the dialogue is often written with the interweaving voices of a song at the finale of act one. The ensemble cast navigates this expertly - Lindsay Goranson gives a particularly poignant, believable depiction of Dolores that is funny and sad, strong and weak all at the same time. Elysia Segal never lets Marny get too whiney, and drives the plot forward with an earnest youthfulness that makes you forgive the character’s frequent self-absorption. Michael S. Rehse gives 100% as the sheltered, totally well-meaning Stephen; Susanna Hari’s Grandma brings the lightness that sometimes comes with old age, keeping us guessing as to weather sage wisdom or sheer ridiculousness (or both) will spill from her lips every time she speaks; and Jenn Mello delivers “Lawn Guyland” to us in all it’s leopard print, man-hungry (but only if he’s a doctor!) glory.
At one point, Grandma, Dolores, Velma and Marny all explain, at the same time, that the tradition in their family is to slap a girl when she first get’s her period. But, as Grandma points out, the slap gets lighter each generation – by the time it gets to Marny it was just a tap. The problems faced by millennial Marny are certainly not the same as the ones single mother Dolores faced nor Grandma who had the double-mastectomy nor the unknown ancestors who came from somewhere in what may or may not still be Poland. Yet a line runs through all of these individuals, making them who they are today.