All the World's a Stage

Night of the acting dead: Abby DeSanto, newly arrived in the hereafter

Night of the acting dead: Abby DeSanto, newly arrived in the hereafter

"Warmth is ebbing from things," claimed the critic-philosopher Walter Benjamin. "The objects of daily use gently but insistently repel us." On the one hand, Benjamin was writing about the alienation of modern existence (hopefully just writing, rather than sharing such thoughts at dinner parties, lest further invitations be mysteriously lost in the mail); on the other, it's a fair description of the moments when the long shadows of the waning day remind us of what eventually lies in store for all living things.

Cityceased, a site-specific, open-air theatrical work playing at Lakeview Cemetery, steps into these shadows and attempts to wrest a bittersweet, contemplative tone from the stark stuff of mortality. The audience waits amid perfectly manicured lawns by a long, placid reflecting pool (thus proving that graveyard designers can inadvertently double as excellent set makers) until a young man (Kristopher Lencowski) in a jacket and tie steps out of the imposing mausoleum doors and looks up, startled.

Turns out Lencowski's character is a citizen of the city of the dead, and the audience's presence represents, for him, the obligation to lead an impromptu tour through his adopted necropolis. Our guide nervously bashes through a bad joke about baseball and death, then is saved from dying (a second time) by the arrival of a young woman (Abby DeSanto) in a bathing suit splashing through the reflecting pool. Abby is a new arrival in the hereafter, and she's set upon by Lencowski and an officious woman (Amy Schweickhardt), who attend to her emotional and bureaucratic needs (there are apparently a good deal of forms to be signed once one has bought the farm).

It's strange, loose stuff, and the cast approaches it by alternating between blasts of intensity and dreamy otherworldliness. After the audience climbs a hill to the next vignette, we meet a dead pet owner (Matt Rein), who doesn't want to give up his companion to its previous owners on Earth (newly deceased, and reclaiming their Fido or Whiskers). By now the sun has gone down and we're in clear sight of rows of monuments and tombstones. The intended effect seems to be lightening the load of eternity by imagining our mundane concerns transferred beyond the grave.

For my part, that represents the scariest part of the evening (that I might spend my death, as my life, cursing and looking for my library card in the mess of my desk is a notion that provides scarce comfort). From here, though, the tone changes. The audience is led deeper into the cemetery, along winding trails lit by cast members holding lamps (you're invited to grab a candle of your own) and around the cemetery's lake. Recollections of mortal life begin to slip into shadow memories, with our cast of dead people contending with the one rule that governs them: The dead continue on only so long as someone living still remembers them.

The action from here becomes considerably more fragmentary. A dead husband (Rein) recounts his fatal trip to the market to buy cigarettes, while further down the road the cast performs a ritual to music in the shadows of the trees. While the audience walks the paths, DeSanto rocks an invisible baby; then, toward the end of the road, Schweickhardt hurls herself on a swing at eye level with alarming gusto. While each individual picture or moment might be arresting, the overall impact of this cast-created experience fails to entirely hit the mark. Stressing atmosphere over narrative may well have been the proper choice (particularly given the setting at hand), but the work as a whole lacks focus, its soft imagery lacking the jolt of the truly uncanny.

It's admittedly a fine balance to seek, and one that may well play out differently on different evenings (the production admirably avoids taking itself too seriously, and it's the kind of show that one imagines evolving over time). Opening night last Saturday, for instance, wasn't helped by a nearby live concert (soft pop echoing through the late-summer night tends to undermine contemplation of eternity). In any case, Cityceased is noteworthy for its originality of spirit, if not entirely for its execution. And if nothing else, it blurs the line between life and death with affability and a hint of mystery, rather than portentousness. By its end, going gently into that good night seems, if momentarily, a little less daunting.