Sailing by Night
nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
October 22, 2012
If you enjoy solo-performance, be certain to check out the third annual United Solo Theatre Festival. Running at Theatre Row on 42nd Street through November 18th, this year’s United Solo features 100 short theatrical productions from around the world, the majority of which will only run once. Take a chance, pick a day, and take in some of the rich and varied offerings this delightful festival has to offer.
“The best way to die is to prepare for it a little every day,” says Judith Shotwell, playwright and performer of Sailing by Night, which just recently completed its short run at United Solo. Shotwell is a music-thanatologist, which, in layman’s terms, is a musician and performer who specializes in the study of death and helps those facing the end of their mortal days to make peace and cross over.
Based out of northern New Mexico, Shotwell and Circle of Love – the non-profit music-thanatology practice she founded in 1995 – have performed for over 23,000 individuals, through bedside vigils, artistic presentations, and the occasional cross-country phone call. Sailing by Night, Shotwell’s one-woman show tied by a loose narrative, two harps, and a wind chime cowbell, seeks to share – and clarify – the what, how, and why of her particular artistic medium.
While much of this piece consists of Shotwell speaking as herself, she briefly dons the character mantle of clients, friends, and a guest lecturer on the demystification of death. As directed by Genie Weber Stevens, the portions spent in character felt somewhat unrehearsed. I was also confused as to why Shotwell was left to sing her own background pop music soundtrack during a party scene where a recording would have made more sense.
There was no such problem when Shotwell took harp in hand and demonstrated the type of live performance that she brings to the dying and their often-devastated family members. Shotwell may be no angel, but the intimate artistic experience she creates for her audience spans grief and hope like a bridge, even as she walks out of a hospice without a trace of tears.
As a performance piece, Sailing by Night could perhaps benefit from further workshopping in order to clarify the narrative, solidify Shotwell’s secondary characters, and do greater justice to Shotwell’s work as a whole. That said, every room Shotwell walks into as a music-thanatologist offers what is, to that point, the most important solo-performance of her artistic career. It is an inspiring gift, and one worth witnessing.