Like a cross between Weekend at Bernie's and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stolen Chair Ensemble's latest production is a slapstick think-piece, set in the vaudeville tradition. Some of the bits may come across a bit cold, but the ensemble's creativity and heart are alive and kicking.
Kiran Rikhye's Theatre Is Dead And So Are You pays vaudevillian homage to all the companies that have ever dragged a playwright back from the dead only to flog the corpse. So what if this troupe's leader, Leonard J. Sharpe (Tommy Dickie) is dead? Chester (the energetic Noah Schultz) and Edwin (an engrossed David Skeist) have decided to soldier on, knowing that good art is born from tragic deaths. It is, as they put it, "the best and only live dead theatre that twelve to eighteen dollars can buy."
The result is Weekend at Bernie's meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is to say that it's a crude (and quite successful) philosophical comedy. The best moments fully blend the two, as Chester puppets Leonard's body into "reviving" Romeo (just in time for his death scene). The worst moments get stuck in slapstick, as when Peggy (Julia Coe) kicks the dead horse of doubletakes, or in metadrama, like a digression on Tennessee Williams.
For the most part, Rikhye strikes a good balance, particularly in musical numbers like the delightfully upbeat "He Was Dead," and through the campy consistency of characters like the morbid Hazel (Liza Wade Green, channeling a PG Rocky Horror vibe) and earnest Harvey (David Berent). What would be character flaws, like the death-scene diva-ness of Florence (Alexia Vernon) or the professorial cluelessness of Roy (David Bengali) are instead turned into clever meditations on death. For instance, the chemical smell of death on ants leads to the conclusion that you ought to live and die to the fullest, for "anything in between is disturbing," and a game of Russian Roulette attempts to prove that "Once you know you're going to die, you'll feel like you can really live!"
The problem with doing all of this in the context of a vaudeville performance--"Death Defying Acts of Death Defiance"--is that 110 straight minutes of it get rather repetitive. Thankfully, the director, Jon Stancato, has gone out of his way to keep things fresh and visually stimulating. Not only does he use the entire Connelly Theater (including the wrap-around balcony, so be prepared to swivel), but he also uses darkness to create even more space to play in, and in doing so, makes the theater part of the play. This is as it should be, considering the not-so-subtle point: Theater Is Dead, but it cannot tell you so without being very much alive. Ultimately, even if you find the content to be cold and dead, the creativity of the Stolen Chair ensemble is quite alive and kicking.
Theater Is Dead And So Are You (1hr 50min, no intermission)
The Connelly Theater (220 East 4th Street)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances (through 1/31): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.