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The Undertaking

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 17, 2018

Dan Domingues and Aysan Celik
Photo by Carol Rosegg

If you are ever in need of a psychopomp, someone to guide you on your journey to the afterlife, I recommend you consider hiring Lydia. She's the Brazilian photographer and media artist warmly played by Aysan Celik in The Civilian's production of Steve Cosson's The Undertaking, a crazy quilt mixture of a TED talk and an examination of the ultimate mystery of death, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters.

The Civilians is a company dedicated to creating documentary works based on investigative research into the sort of big issues that fill late night college dorm room conversations about our place in the vastness of the universe. Unfortunately, and despite some very fine acting, The Undertaking comes off as just such an undergraduate exploration, drawn from Psych 101 and late-night rambling and alcohol-fueled musings.

The focus of this particular conversation is on the great unknown of our mortality. More specifically, it concerns the anxiety about death that provokes a deep sense of dread in The Civilians' artistic director Steve Cosson, or at least in the character of "Steve," as portrayed by Dan Domingues.

In part, the production is about the development of the work itself, using recordings and excerpts of transcripts from interviews with individuals who offer perspectives on dying, death, and what might lie beyond. That's the part that comes off like a TED talk as the actors take on the roles of the interview subjects. Mr. Domingues, for example, becomes the British philosopher Simon Critchley, and also the long-time director of the Ridiculous Theater Company, Everett Quinton. For her part, Ms. Celik becomes a cancer patient who is a participant in a medical experiment involving the use of the hallucinogen psilocybin. Presumably, these are authentic excerpts from actual interviews, and they are potentially intriguing. But they are so truncated that they fail to shed much light on the individuals' experiences.

More pointedly, The Undertaking is about Steve's struggle with his own generalized apprehension, something he attributes to being frightened for his mother who has MS and, more egocentrically, to his fear of losing her and being left behind. Thankfully, he has someone to guide him in his odyssey into the unknown. That would be his friend Lydia, who rejects the minor role of interview subject in favor of establishing a dialog with Steve that will force him to confront his fears.

The best moments of the play occur in the intimacy of the conversations between Lydia and Steve. His modus operandi is to distance himself from his angst by being a neutral collector of reports from those who have had near-death experiences or who have suffered the loss of a loved one. Indeed, Lydia was just supposed to be another interview subject, talking about a ceremony she participated in with a shaman in Brazil, involving a hallucinogenic plant that led to an apparent out-of-body experience. But that is not how she sees herself. Her personal goal is to gently guide her friend into putting himself into the play. This is a tough sell for Steve, who is most reluctant to openly scrutinize his fears.

In order to help, Lydia draws from Jean Cocteau's film on the story of Orpheus and on the tale of Dionysus to create a reenactment of these mythological characters' excursions into the underworld in order to force Steve to deal with his deep-seated anxiety. "The most important thing," Lydia says by way of encouragement, “is that when Orpheus goes to the other side, he doesn't go alone." This reassurance is just what Steve needs in order to open up and release his pent-up feelings.

Mr. Domingues and Ms. Celik are both fine actors, and they do a very good job of transforming into the interview subjects and in lending credibility to the bond between Lydia and Steve. But the work overall is too trapped in the real Steve Cosson's vision. He both wrote the play (in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani, a video artist and the likely inspiration for Lydia), and he directs the production. As is often the case in such situations, the creator/director lacks the eye of the outsider to make the piece accessible for the audience. The play would be better served by expanding on the use of the interviews to more deeply examine the complex issues surrounding death and dying, or by digging more into the psychological profile of the character of Steve. As it stands, both components are frustratingly underdeveloped, rather like one of those seemingly deep but ultimately shallow undergraduate conversations. The production is not helped much, either, by Tal Yarden's projection design, which seems random and mostly unrelated to the play's content. Thus, the production lacks a much-needed cohesiveness and unnecessarily obscures its subject matter.

The Undertaking
Through Feburary 4
59E59 Theater B, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral