Brandon Olson (center) and the cast of THE ETIQUETTE OF DEATH. Photo by Ves Pitts.
BOTTOM LINE: Life is a death sentence, so you might as well try to enjoy the journey.
Chris Tanner's The Etiquette of Death is a collage of (mostly musical) performances servicing a common storyline, a unique mosaic about celebrating life through death. Written by several notable performance artists (see above) and dramaturged by Leonie Ettinger, Daniel Nelson, Penny Rockwell and director Everett Quinton, The Etiquette of Death represents unique perspectives coming together for a single purpose. With a large cast and a grand production, it evokes a New Orleans funeral (complete with horn section), yet its attention to the AIDS epidemic and a hint of cynicism maintain a Northern sensibility.
Tanner himself plays Joan Girdler, a cosmetic saleswoman whose son Joey (Brandon Olson) is dying. Much like Dianne Wiest in Edward Scissorhands, Girdler uses makeup to cover life's blemishes, making sure every part of life is neat and tidy and superficially perfect. And in the campiest of drag, Tanner is able to evoke a histrionic female character who tries to keep a sunny disposition despite her personal grief. Due to The Etiquette of Death's experimental nature and emphasis on performativity rather than storyline, many of the show's plot points remain muddy in my mind. There is a chorus of metaphorical pigeons, death himself (played by Everett Quinton) who always travels with his leggy hench-bitches (Machine Dazzle and Matthew Crosland), and Isis (soulful vocalist Greta Jane Pedersen in a star-making performance). Joey's sister Christy (Lance Cruce) is a psychopath, Dr. Jennings (bandleader and composer Jeremy X. Halpern) delivers bad medical news to Joan, and Judith (Beth Dodye Bass) is an ill-mannered dining partner. The Etiquette of Death offers various scenes and sketches, but the consistent through-line keeps the production succinct.
The Etiquette of Death is grand, from the marble staircases to the chandelier to the blonde bouffant wigs to the size of the cast (20 at my count). Quinton makes ample use of La MaMa's tall performance space, effectively balancing the cast throughout the cavernous stage on levels of all kinds. Choreographer Julie Atlas Muz fluidly manipulates the chorus, sometimes with organic movement and sometimes with synchronized 1960s-esque steps. The designs are colorful and dynamic with much to look at, and short scenes keep the momentum building at all times. Most importantly, the dedicated cast exudes a delightful energy that trickles down from Tanner's magnetism as Joan.
Fans of experimental theatre will likely delight in The Etiquette of Death. Though it has a cobbled-together approach that isn't always seamless, its attention to artistry and its positive spirit are hard to deny. And the roster of contributing playwrights is impressive in its own right. I suspect that the audience experience at this show is different for all theatregoers, and its takeaway is just as individual. Tanner has taken an uncomfortable part of the human experience and theatricalized it in a way that not only unites people, but does so under the most supportive of intentions. Death is unavoidable, so we might as well embrace it for its humanity.
(The Etiquette of Death plays at La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street, through July 1, 2012. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30PM and Sundays at 5:30PM. Tickets are $18 and $13 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets visit lamama.org or call 212.475.7710. Check out a video trailer at http://vimeo.com/44124139.)