In Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More tries to console his daughter on his way to the executioner’s block. “Death comes for us all,” he says, embracing her. “Even at our birth – even at our birth, death does but stand aside a little. And every day he looks towards us and muses somewhat to himself whether that day or the next he will draw nigh. It is the law of nature and the will of God.”
Early on in Death Play, Lisa Dring – who wrote and performs the piece – uses a virtual whiteboard to describe who is sitting in the audience. The smallest entity – friends and family of the performer – gets a circle drawn around it. Progressively larger circles encompass groups including those who have suffered a loss, those who have experienced grief, and those who will experience grief. The largest circle – the one which includes everyone in the room – is “those who will die.”
All right, then: we’re all going to die. So why are people so reluctant to talk about death? Possibly because it’s something they fear. Possibly because it can be messy and embarrassing as those we’ve looked up to lose control and become helpless. Possibly because we have ambiguous feelings about it: we don’t want a loved one to die, but if the person is suffering, we want the suffering to stop. And if we’re taking care of him or her, there’s that pressure as well. How do we deal with the utter powerlessness we feel when confronting death, and with the complex feelings of sadness, frustration – and relief – when the end finally comes?
As someone who’s seen a lot of death in my lifetime, and as a caregiver for more than a few of those who have died, these thoughts and others bubbled up again in the aftermath of the show. I commend Ms Dring for her bravery – and bravura – in walking onstage and sharing her own very personal experiences with death, as well as her feelings of inadequacy in its face.
For Death Play is the very intimate memoir of this writer-performer, a half-Japanese half-Caucasian woman who lost both parents and her beloved grandmother while she was still in her early twenties. Moving up and down a “timeline” painted on the stage floor, she shows us where in life “most people” lose their parents – then moves to her own place on the timeline, significantly earlier. She tells us how she went on a long trip after the string of deaths, how it seemed as if she introduced herself to each new acquaintance by explaining her mother had just died, how she eventually traveled to a monastery where she took a vow of silence for an extended period and wound up screaming – silently – for much of her time there.
Her family wasn’t your typical one. Her maternal grandmother, though born in the United States, was more Japanese than not, dispensing wisdom and tradition with a stern aspect. Her Asian-American mother and Caucasian father – a man who sounds like a bit of a wastrel – fought fiercely, as Lisa and her sister cowered. Her father left the family early on, and when Lisa learned he was dead, she hadn’t seen him for a number of years.
This history is told on a stunning off-white set, designed and lit by Kirk Wilson. Hundreds and hundreds of folded paper birds – some on strings from floor to ceiling, hundreds more in piles around the set – call to mind the ancient Japanese legend that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by the gods. A conical sculpture – made of wood and cloth and paper – hangs to one side, while an altar-like lighted counter separates the audience from the stage. If the sculpture didn’t obscure the line of sight to the whiteboard for part of the audience, the set would be almost perfect: ethereal and evocative, beautiful and messy, a no-man’s-land where anything can happen.
This is a play created out of what appears to be a great well of feeling, but unfortunately it’s more thought-provoking after the fact than during it. The great acting teacher Stella Adler advised actors, “whenever you speak, either mean something or see something; don’t report.” Ms Dring does too much reporting here, describing scenes and people with a detachment which renders them curiously flat. And her performance often comes across as more of a facile acting exercise than a fully-felt experience: moments of mannered wailing which morph into hysterical laughter, then end with a snap-back-to-reality clear-eyed delivery of a line. Paradoxically, this deeply personal piece left me unmoved.
Which is a shame. For the subject is a worthy one, and Ms Dring’s experience no doubt was wrenching. I wish her well.
Written and performed by Lisa Dring
Directed by Jessica Hanna
Through April 23
Circle X Theatre Co.
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Tickets: http://circlextheatre.org/ or at the door.