It's a good thing director Steve Cosson isn't easily dissuaded. "It was the hardest show to sell," he says of a 2013 workshop production of Be the Death of Me, a precursor to The Civilians' new production, The Undertaking. To create it, members of the investigative theater company spoke with one hundred New Yorkers whose life experiences, professions, or proclivities bring them in contact with death: crime-scene cleaners, E.R. nurses, suicide-attempt survivors, zombie-flick screenwriters, vampires. Then, more than thirty actors fanned out through a historic church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to interactively perform transcripts of their interviews in an episode of the company's cabaret series, Let Me Ascertain You.
"Nobody really wants to be reminded that we get sick, we get old, we die; it's a bit of a Debbie Downer thing to say," Cosson says. "We had a hard time selling tickets." Still, three years later, the group is poised to premiere The Undertaking at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, traveling to Durham via Duke Performances afterward.
Since 2001, The Civilians have sought out new ways of collaborating with ordinary people and theater professionals—including Duke Theater Studies professor Neal Bell and playwright Anne Washburn, whose Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play was produced at Manbites Dog Theater last season—in an effort to engage larger social and political concerns. The process has involved documentary and cultural anthropology techniques, like interviews and historical research, pioneered by a previous generation of artists including Anna Deavere Smith and Moises Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Project.
With uncanny timing, The Civilians were documenting the sudden rise of evangelical Christianity in Colorado Springs just as a sex-and-drugs scandal brought down conservative religious leader Ted Haggard in 2006. The Beautiful City, a music theater work, chronicled those events. The group probed the present-day vagaries of the pornography industry in California's San Fernando Valley in 2015's Pretty Filthy, and other projects have focused on lost objects, gentrification in Brooklyn, and climate change in Canada and Panama.
"I want audiences to go beyond themselves and engage with people in the stories they may not have experienced in their own lives," Cosson says. "But I want them to do so with their critical minds present."
Cosson placed himself directly in The Undertaking, seeking out subjects originally interviewed by other company members for personal conversations. "With such a vast subject, it made sense to me to pull it into my own particular relationship with death," he says. "I felt compelled to let myself into the play, how I struggle with these questions and how they play out in my life."
Dan Domingues plays Cosson onstage, in dialogue with Jessica Mitrani, a filmmaker and visual and performance artist portrayed by Irene Sofia Lucio. The pair goes on a modern-day quest into the underworld through conversations with dozens of other characters. Neurologists at New York University, Jungian psychotherapists, and shamans contemplate, induce, and explore the fraught but transformative phenomenon of ego death, while passages from Jean Cocteau's Orpheus play across the walls of Marsha Ginsberg's set.
"When the fear of death is provoked, you can turn toward it or run away from it," Cosson says. "If we walk toward something that scares us, that we might otherwise bury away, it's actually a path toward living a fuller life, a path toward becoming less afraid."
Hannibal Buress (Sept. 23, 8 p.m., Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh, www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com) The nice guy with a bad attitude (or vice versa?) from Broad City, The Eric Andre Show, and several uproarious Netflix specials brings his distinctive style of laconic, biting comedy to Raleigh. —Brian Howe
Mothers and Sons (Sept. 23–Oct. 9, Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh, www.raleighlittletheatre.org) Timothy Locklear directs veteran actor Rebecca Johnston's return to the regional stage in Terrence McNally's wrenching family drama, where a mother confronts her guilt over her gay son's death. —Byron Woods
Gaspard & Dancers (Sept. 29–30, 8 p.m., Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham, www.tickets.duke.edu) The raw vibrancy of Basquiat infuses the premiere of Haitian-born choreographer Gaspard Louis's homage, Portrait, along with his new duet with local dance maven Justin Tornow and a guest appearance by Black Irish Hip Hop Contemporary Dance. —Byron Woods
The Trump Card (Oct. 2–Nov. 7, 7:30 p.m., Manbites Dog Theater, Durham, www.manbitesdogtheater.org) Carl Martin, who has played memorable rough-edged characters in the past, is the perfect candidate to take on Mike Daisey's pugilistic but nuanced portrayal of the Republican presidential candidate. —Byron Woods
zoe | juniper: Clear & Sweet (Oct. 5–6, 7:30 p.m., UNC's Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, www.carolinaperformingarts.org) Dance, photography, sculptural video and performance, singers seated throughout the audience—that's the kind of immersive multimedia experience Seattle's Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey deploy in this Carolina Performing Arts co-commission springing from the Southern tradition of sacred choral music.—Chris Vitiello
Nikki Glaser (Oct. 6–8, Goodnights Comedy Club, Raleigh, www.goodnightscomedy.com) The star of Comedy Central's Not Safe with Nikki Glaser seems poised to become the next Amy Schumer, in whose movie Trainwreck Glaser appeared. This three-night stand at Goodnights might be your last chance to see her in an intimate venue. —Zack Smith
Skylight (Oct. 6–23, Murphey School Auditorium, Raleigh, www.burningcoal.org) In a rare stage appearance, Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis stars in David Hare's autopsy of English society in the late nineties, as two estranged lovers meet in a London flat to see what remains between them.—Byron Woods
EverScape (Oct. 6–23, Sonorous Road Theatre, Raleigh, www.baretheatre.org) Local playwright Allan Maule's thought-provoking cyber-drama about a group of online gamers competing for a job dissolves the line between virtual and reality; it was the toast of last year's New York International Fringe Festival. —Byron Woods
Kathleen Madigan (Oct. 7, 8 p.m., Carolina Theatre, Durham, www.carolinatheatre.org) A comedy veteran most recently seen as a regular on The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Kathleen Madigan shows the Carolina why Lewis Black called her the funniest comic in America. —Zack Smith
Don Quixote (Oct. 13–30, Fletcher Opera Theater, Raleigh, www.carolinaballet.com) The ingenious gentleman and his companion have provided rich material for ballets for centuries. In the 2008 adaptation by Carolina Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss, Cervantes's classic comes to life with visual panache and elegant Spanish music.—David Klein
Tommy Noonan/Compagnie Marie Lenfant: Fake It Till You Make It (Oct. 15–16, Living Arts Collective, Durham, www.culturemill.org) Through Culture Mill, choreographer and dancer Tommy Noonan regularly adds compelling international artists to the mix of local dance. In DIDA's 2016–17 season opener, France's Marie Lenfant and Noonan split an evening of solos. —Michaela Dwyer
Henry Rollins (Oct. 16, 7 p.m., Carolina Theatre, Durham, www.carolinatheatre.org) It takes a big voice to cut through all the shouting this election year. Henry Rollins has one, and he's been speaking truth to power for long enough to have his oratory down to a fine, unvarnished art. —David Klein
Neil deGrasse Tyson (Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m., Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, www.dpacnc.com) The country's most famous astrophysicist, Cosmos host, science pundit, and social-media battler of science-deniers brings his star stuff back to DPAC for another galactic lecture. —Brian Howe
Fun Home (Oct. 25–30, Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, www.dpacnc.com) We probably won't get Hamilton until about 3000 A.D., but we do get this other recent, beloved Broadway hit, adapted from Alison Bechdel's brilliant comics memoir of sexuality, death, and family, so we can't complain. —Brian Howe
Sussan Deyhim: The House Is Black (Oct. 28, 8 p.m., UNC's Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, www.carolinaperformingarts.org) The Iranian American performance artist and composer Sussan Deyhim blends projections, archival footage, and a score of Persian and Western music in a visionary multimedia tribute to Forough Farrokhzad, the Iranian feminist poet and filmmaker. —Brian Howe
Trisha Brown Dance Company: In Plain Site (Oct. 28–30, Sarah P. Duke Gardens/Nasher Museum of Art, Durham, www.dukeperformances.org) Postmodern dance pioneer Trisha Brown took her dancers into the streets (and onto the sides of buildings and New York rooftops). Since her retirement, her company has restaged her works in unique places in the "In Plain Site" series, which brings two iconic pieces to two iconic Duke locations. —Michaela Dwyer
nora chipaumire: portrait of myself as my
father (Nov. 10, 7:30 p.m., UNC's Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill, www.carolinaperformingarts.org) In a boxing ring, the fierce choreographer nora chipaumire, who has written pieces for Urban Bush Women, does battle with the forces that have historically taken, used, killed, and erased the black male body. —Byron Woods
The Other Mozart (Nov. 11–12, NCSU's Kennedy-McIlwee Studio Theatre, Raleigh, live.arts.ncsu.edu) Like her brother, Mozart's sister, nicknamed Nannerl, was a child prodigy, but because she was a girl, she faced a different fate. Playwright/actor Sylvia Milo introduces us to the family's other musical genius. —Byron Woods
The May Queen (Nov. 22–Dec. 11, UNC's Paul Green Theatre, Chapel Hill, www.playmakersrep.org) PlayMakers artistic director Vivienne Benesch helms a work she commissioned during her years in New York. A former high school prom queen returns to her hometown in something less than triumph in this dark comedy about unfinished business. —Byron Woods
This article appeared in print with the headline "Don't Fear the Reaper"