Theatre Is Dead and So Are You
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 9, 2009
Death is inevitable, death is scary, death is funny. Does one of those not belong? The folks at Stolen Chair agree, I am sure, with all three, and their newest "unholy hybrid" theatre work, called Theatre Is Dead and So Are You, is a macabre and weirdly off-kilter cabaret that revels in death: in looking this greatest of taboos in the face and then throwing a custard pie at it.
A certain Charles Addams-ish sensibility is probably necessary to fully appreciate this show. Otherwise, you might feel uneasy while the entire cast plays a game of Russian Roulette with an apparently loaded pistol...or when one of the actors passes the urn containing his late wife's ashes around the audience...or when the last scene of Romeo & Juliet is enacted by a Romeo who has already died (indeed, who has been lying in a coffin onstage for the entire evening).
No, Theatre Is Dead is probably not everybody's cup of tea. But what playwright Kiran Rikhye, director Jon Stancato, and their collaborators in Stolen Chair accomplish here is smart, stylish, and virtuosic, deconstructing what bothers us about the Final Rest by throwing as many theatrical gimmicks as possible at it.
Now's the time to explain "unholy hybrid" for the uninitiated. Stolen Chair's modus operandi in making plays is to mashup two theatrical ideas or forms to create something new and, one hopes, interesting. Here the theme of death as taboo is matched with the American theatrical style that has been "dying" for the longest time, i.e., vaudeville. Theatre Is Dead is shaped more or less like an old-time vaudeville show, and it's inhabited by a motley potpourri of variety performers of the kind who used to troupe all over the U.S.A. back in the 1910s and '20s. Acts are introduced by members of the company because the Master of Ceremonies—one Leonard J. Sharpe—is the fellow in the coffin I mentioned earlier.
What unfolds is a hodgepodge of novelty performances that together neatly comprise a sometimes profound meditation on death and, a related concept, the death of the theatre. Some of the stuff here is fairly straightforward—the troupe's leading actress, Florence Wallace, only performs death scenes, for example. Some is slyly witty—Florence tells us that she does not have the rights to perform a dramatic moment from A Streetcar Named Desire, but then manages to perform it anyway. And some is startlingly honest:
ROY: Edwin Sanders. Before I pull the trigger, would you like to make any last wishes?
EDWIN: Remember me.
Stancato's staging is loaded with high energy that belies the mordant subject matter, and utilizes every nook and cranny of the Connolly Theatre with real panache. The cast of eight, which includes one Lecoq-trained clown and one professional stunt man, do terrific work, with particular standouts being Stolen Chair vet Alexia Vernon as Florence and Liza Wade Green as a limber, sometimes melancholy comedienne named Hazel. Noah Schultz almost steals the show near its end in the Romeo & Juliet scene. And kudos are absolutely due Tommy Dickie, who plays the onstage corpse.
Musical accompaniment is provided by the excellent four-piece band, led by composer-dramaturg-musical director Emily Otto. Production design—by David Bengali, with costumes by Julie B. Schworm, props by Aviva Meyer, and a magical coffin created by Daniel Green—is exquisite.
If the idea of spending a couple of hours making light of eternal darkness makes you squirm, then Theatre Is Dead and So Are You is probably not for you. But if the opportunity to see one of indie theater's smartest and most adventurous young companies tangle with the Unknowable tantalizes you, then a visit to the Connolly may well be in order.