The Etiquette of Death
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 15, 2012
The Etiquette of Death, a ginormous pageant about death and dying conceived and created by Chris Tanner, is a collage of voices, scenes and songs, all shaped into a loose book-musical format and performed by a cast of 20 and a 7-member band, with a startlingly lavish and fabulous production design. It's the kind of work—in terms of scale, scope, and style—that could pretty much only be produced at La MaMa these days, and thank goodness for them and for this, as suitable a capper to the 50th anniversary season as any show might be.
In keeping with the mashed-together and often meta-theatrical ethos of the thing, Etiquette starts about three different times before it actually begins (if you know what I mean). There's a cool, modern jazz-y overture, nicely played, as all the music is, by musical director Jeremy X. Halpern and his six colleagues on guitar, bass, drums, brass, and reeds. Then there's a short, semi-funny/semi-somber (and thus appropriately mood-setting) dialogue between two men discussing a mutual friend, who is probably dying of AIDS, planning for his memorial:
B: If his works were in an institutional collection, then he would be known, and maybe his work could inspire the kids!
A: Yeah, maybe... Actually – let’s give it all to his friends. That’s how he’ll be remembered, how he can continue to inspire us. We need to live with his work every day, just like he did. Who cares if he becomes a dead art star? His work should live on, in us, forever!
A + B: Is it better to burn out, or to fade away? What is the etiquette of Death?
And then there's a tribute to the late Ellen Stewart, La MaMa herself, in the person of performer Agosto Machado, who enters ringing a bell and introduces the show just as Stewart would have done were she here herself to do so.
And then...the play proper begins.
It tells the story of Joan Girdler, the powerful and egomaniacal head of a cosmetics empire (performed with over-the-top panache by Tanner: think Joan Crawford crossed with Mary Kay), and her battles with Death (as glamorously personified by Everett Quinton, in a chic black dress and stiletto heels). Death is interested not only in Joan but, more immediately, in her son (portrayed by Brandon Olson, in a beautifully modulated performance), who is nearing the end of his battle (AIDS, probably, again) and is confined mostly to a hospital bed, attached to an IV, attended by an angel/nurse (Machado, again).
Interspersed with the scenes from Joan's tale are vignettes that each tackle the eponymous topic of the etiquette of death, contributed by an impressive and varied array of artists: Penny Arcade, Lance Cruce, Angela DiCarlo, Martha Girdler, Jeremy X. Halpern, John Jesurun, Beena Kamlani, Stephen Lott, Stephen McCauley, Taylor Mac, Agosto Machado, Edgar Oliver, Brandon Olson, Greta Jane Pedersen, Everett Quinton, Jon Ritter, Penny Rockwell, Tony Stavick, Sebastian Stuart, and Tanner himself, who, with Stuart, wrote the throughline for the piece as well; dramaturgy is by Leonie Ettinger, Daniel Nelson, Rockwell, and Quinton. (I would have liked to have seen individual contributions identified in the program, rather than just the names of the authors in a list.)
As may be expected with such a large number of voices, there's frequent discontinuity and incongruence throughout the evening—an unevenness not of quality but of tone and perspective that belies the fundamentally conventional musical-comedy format. Any time you think you're moving close in to a character or an emotion, something invariably happens to pull you back. So The Etiquette of Death is about embracing community and difference in the true La MaMa tradition rather than advancing a particular argument or point of view.
Tanner and Quinton deliver stellar drag turns in very different styles; many others among the contributors, including the aforementioned Olson and Machado, are among the large cast as well, along with regulars from La MaMa and the current downtown performance/burlesque worlds. Kudos are especially earned by the design team, which is comprised of Becky Hubbert (costumes), Susan Hamburger (lighting), Steven Hammel (set), Chuck Hettinger (props), Perfidia (wigs), and Angela DiCarlo (makeup).
And just as the show boasts multiple openings, so too does it apparently end several times, culminating in a finale that you may have already heard about (and that is indeed noted in the program), where everyone, on stage and off, is coaxed into singing a ditty that ends "We're all gonna die-ie / We're all gonna die."