Life... Death... and Entertainment
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
August 17, 2008
Let me first say, I liked this play—it is a very powerful, unique experience. Now let me explain why (and bear with me). In 1930 the poet/playwright Federico García Lorca first spoke of a force in art he called Duende. Here's an explanation (from Wikipedia) of what he said:
Duende is not inspiration, Duende is a struggle, a dark force, having very little to do with outer beauty, a struggle present in the artist's soul, the struggle of knowing that death is imminent...Duende will then color the artist's work with gut-wrenching authenticity, painful hues and tones that produce strong, vibrant art.
Duende is a concept I have studied, but I had never seen it (or truly understood it) until I saw Susan Damante, the writer/performer of Life...Death...and Entertainment. Please note, Damante's play is autobiographical and has nothing remotely to do with Lorca, nor does she ever say Duende. But boy, does she have it.
Damante has had an eventful life, with many ups and downs. When her baby brother died, everyone in Suzy's family found relief in addiction. Her brother turned to heroin, her mother to gin martinis ("which are like gasoline on the brain"), her father to vodka, and little Suzy to porcelain (aka the bathroom). The bathroom was where she could go and have time to herself and make silly faces in the mirror. It also became where she purged herself after binging. Damante won a beauty contest, got married, had two talented daughters, acted in many small films and made-for-TV movies, and found great comfort and strength in Buddhism. She also faced the untimely deaths of her brother and father, got divorced, was held up at gunpoint, and has had many near death experiences due to her long battle with severe Crohn's disease.
Damante shares all of this with us through her stories (which seem to have caricatures rather than characters in them) and through songs, ranging from "It's a Privilege to Pee" (from Urinetown) to "Don't Rain on My Parade" (from Funny Girl). Her voice is gravelly and not traditionally beautiful, but she attacks the songs with so much vigor and ferocity that you listen with total attention. The same is true of her "freak-out" moments in which she'll grab the toilet onstage and just shake it and scream or when she's reenacting her near-death experiences and she'll start chanting Buddhist chants in the angriest, most determined way possible. Andy Fehrenbach is the perfect accompanist for Damante, offering chords and melodies for the songs and discordant, spasmodic key hitting for the freak-outs.
I sat through most of the play with my jaw dropped in shock. Shock at how one middle-aged woman could have gone through so much hardship and shock at the performer in front of me who is so ferocious, so determined, so full of Duende.