If you’ve ever lived with someone with dementia, you know that it can sometimes feel like being in a really bad play: you have to pretend to take on roles you’re totally unprepared for, objects are suddenly endowed with surprising new qualities, scenes can last for longer than anyone cares to endure and the star of this show is a seemingly selfish diva who can command the supporting cast at will.
The dancer David Neumann’s father, Frank, was an actor, so when Neumann père became afflicted with dementia in his final months, his son viewed it as his last performance (with a tumultuous backdrop provided by Hurricane Sandy). The result is I Understand Everything Better, a tribute from one performer to another that casts wide for parallels to the chaos of losing one’s mind, from Shakespeare (Lear in the tempest) to Noh and Kabuki. It also makes rather precious use of video to project fuzzy close-ups of Mimi Lien’s set, an abstraction of a comfortable home, with bookshelves and coffee mugs, aquariums, a bird feeder…
Neumann plays his father, a self-described “man of distinction” dressed alternately in a scissored-up blazer and a kimono, whose mind wanders between a hospital party (nice hors d’oeuvres) and a desire to go on an excursion (the text is co-written by Sibyl Kempson). Neumann’s three co-dancers fill in as Frank’s care aids; they humor him, clean him up (rather explicitly) and dress him. Dressed in black, they might be Bunraku puppet-handlers to Frank’s sometimes unwilling limbs, but they also get exasperated and frustrated. Dying is a bitch, and it takes its toll on the living, too.
Which is the impetus for Neumann’s show. He writes in the program notes that he doesn’t, in fact, understand anything at all better after watching both of his parents die but it was a process that needed to be distilled through his own art. If meant to be a reflection on death, the show remained impenetrable to me, though Neumann’s long final exit (onto the sidewalk outside The Chocolate Factory) raised that eternal and infernal question of where the dying go. As an approximation of some of the bizarre situations one confronts caring for a dementia patient, however, it struck a funny nerve at times.
The performance I attended was the show’s finale in COIL (it premiered last season at Abrons) and the house was packed with expectant friends and supporters who laughed at the slightest urging and gave a standing ovation. But this show hype was fitting, too, it seemed; since death is the only moment in life immune to self-performance, I Understand Everything Better was all the more clearly a call to perform against the moment when we no longer can.