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A CurtainUp Review
The Undertaking

It always seems to me that theater is that rung of make-believe that we allow ourselves to enter when that zone that separates the living and the dead kind of breaks down. Because in theater, in every repeated performance, the actor is possessed, willfully, taken over by a character.
— Philosopher Simon Critchley, interviewed for the Civilians' investigative drama The Undertaking ;
The Undertaking
Aysan Celik and Dan Dominguez
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Undertaking by Steve Cosson is currently on the top floor of 59E59. This two-hander, seen previously in the 2016 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, purports to address being and nothingness but is, primarily, a reflection on the dread of death.

Founded in 2001, the Civilians Investigative Theater is a troupe that constructs dramatic works based on field research, and Cosson is the company's artistic director. The Undertaking, directed by the author, includes material from interviews with English philosopher Simon Critchley who has written about the deaths of philosophers; theater artist Everett Quinton, who lost those most dear to him — including romantic partners, friends, and artistic collaborators— in the AIDS epidemic; a crime scene cleaner; a hospice nurse; a cancer patient undergoing psilocybin therapy; a woman critically injured in a skiing accident, who recounts a near-death experience; and an "embalming school dropout." Cosson's script channels the voices of these interviewees and, also, dramatizes the company's playmaking process.

The narrative frame of The Undertaking involves Steve (Dan Domingues), a playwright and director, interviewing media artist Lydia (Aysan Celik) about a Brazilian shamanic ritual that supposedly gives participants a preview of what they'll experience at life's end. Steve is doing field research for a theater piece the details of which he's keeping under wraps because it's at an early stage of development.

Reticent Steve and aggressive Lydia have been friends long enough that Lydia feels free to speak her mind. She demands to know details of Steve's "undertaking," and peppers him vwith questions about the genesis of the project.

Steve doesn't feel the provenance of his project is anybody's business, and he's determined not to be bullied. "I don't do personal," he says in self-defense.

Steve tries to explain his field work in intellectual terms: "I was looking back at all these Civilians shows we've made from interviews," he explains. "Gone Missing about lost objects, that's death, you know, in the substrate of it. Then, lost revolutions in Paris Commune, lost neighborhoods — in the Brooklyn show, just a lot of lost causes, dying dreams. I thought maybe it's time to get to the bottom of it, you know, go after the big one."

Lydia won't have her questions deflected. As an interview subject, Lydia is a handful; as a self-appointed dramaturg, she's a firecracker.

== She warns Steve that his theater project will succeed only if he explores the feelings, however unsettling, that motivate his questions. When Steve confesses that the research has been inspired by months of observing his mother's degenerative condition (she has multiple sclerosis), as well as the disintegrating residents of the nursing home where she lives, Lydia urges him to plunge deeper into his own emotions.

The Undertaking features intricate technical design by Thomas Dunn (lighting), Mikhail Fiksel (sound), and Tal Yarden (projections), which permits Marsha Ginsberg's simple, clean-lined stage set to be transformed in a trice from a chic New York City apartment to spaces that are abstract and other-worldly. With modulating sound, light, and imagery, the designers transport the action from the realistic setting of Steve and Lydia's colloquy to the internal worlds of the interviewees' reflections and, in the final third of the play, to a fanciful rendering of the afterlife inspired by Jean Cocteau's 1950 film Orpheus.

The Undertaking is a mere 80 minutes in duration, with well-paced dialogue between the principal characters and arresting interpolations from the playwright's field research. But the enterprise goes off the rails in its final third. The playwright's attempt to explore the nature of death is defeated by the fact that, as Marvell says, the grave's a fine and private place, inaccessible to the living.

Cosson suggests that the death "experts" — Critchley, Quinton, and the others — are comparable to Orpheus, who crossed the river Styx to reunite with the dead Eurydice. Having reached a dramatic dead end far short of death itself, the playwright sends Lydia and Steve into a whimsical dance that represents an excursion to the underworld via Cocteau's film. As the two cavort about the stage in animal skins and masks, with an umbrella and a selfie-stick, clips of Cocteau's actors are projected on the back wall of the set. The scene is a valiant attempt to finesse a narrative impasse. But the shift in tone and tempo is accompanied by a whiff of dramaturgical desperation. This final segment of the play begins as a charming conceit but quickly runs out of steam since the interviews (even the one with the woman who endured a "near death" experience) don't cross the great divide or shed any light on what's ahead for the rest of us.

At one point, Steve references Ludwig Wittgenstein. If the playwright decides to revise the final section of The Undertaking, he would be well advised to heed that philosopher's most famous dictum: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

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The Undertaking by Steve Cosson
Conceived in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani
Director: Steve Cosson
Cast: Aysan Celik and Dan Domingues
Scenic and costume design: Marsha Ginsberg
Lighting design: Thomas Dunn
Sound design: Mikhail Fiksel
Projection design: Tal Yarden
Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda
Producer: Margaret Moll
Running Time: 80 minutes without intermission
Produced by The Civilians Investigative Theater
Presented by 59E59 (59 East 59th Street) in Theater B;
From 1/11/18; opening 1/17/18; closing 2/4/18
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a January 13 press preview

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