The revival of Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die, directed and choreographed by Raja Father Kelly for 2nd Stage, feels like it’s trying awfully hard to give the audience the experience of a rock concert. But the show, with its stories of exquisite grief and loss, and with its stated mission of bringing a small measure of comfort to that audience, fits oddly with a lot of Kelly’s choices. What could be moving and personal starts to feel more like edgy-but-not-funny stand-up comedy, and this undercuts the effectiveness of the piece.
The original production of We’re Gonna Die, produced as playwright Young Jean Lee’s slot in the playwrights’ collective 13P, was a tease in the guise of a cabaret act. Performed by Lee herself, at Joe’s Pub, with a lo-fi backing band, the show constantly seduced you into intimacy, behaving as if it were confessional autobiography—a classic solo show—while actually being a work of pure storytelling that demanded neither baring of the soul nor capital A Acting.
As an author’s note in the script says, “All of the stories in this show are true, but not all of them happened to me, so although I originally performed the piece, the character of ‘Singer is not meant to be me. Instead, the show is designed for anyone to be able to perform as themselves without adopting a theatrical persona.”
In Kelly’s production, every element is amped up three or four notches, especially the performances. The music (by Lee and Tim Simmonds), while retaining the simple, tuneful melodies and lyrics, is given more rock-and-roll orchestrations, performed by a solid five-piece ensemble (Kevin Ramessar on guitar and keyboard, Freddy Hall on guitar, Ximone Rose on keyboard, Debbie Christine Tjong on bass, and Marques Walls on drums) in spangly punk-rock-ish costumes (by Naoko Nagata). The space is designed (by David Zinn) as some sort of giant, grim waiting room centered around a spiral staircase twisting up to the very high ceiling and down into the floor. (The staircase, combined with the show’s focus on death inevitably suggests Christian notions of the afterlife, with a heaven above and a hell below, though not in any explicit or literal way.) Walls plays from a glassed-in anteroom that resembles a ticket-seller’s booth; while I understand the acoustical reasons for the setup, it does take away from the coherence of the band. Tuce Yasak’s lighting design is bright with neon and colored follow-spots. There are balloons slowly trickling into the space, and shiny streamers shot out of a cannon, and Kelly’s excellent choreography kicking in for an anarchic dance break near the end.
It’s a lot of bells and whistles placed between the audience and the gravity of the piece’s actual subject matter: Loss. Grief. Death. Dark nights of the soul. And it falls to Janelle McDermoth, the singer/storyteller at the center, to try to navigate us through to the emotional heart of the play. But under Kelly’s direction, you’re never in doubt she’s acting. She’s trying to give comfort by constantly gauging the audience’s reaction, but the stories feel polished and practiced to engineer that reaction. She’s a wonderful singer, and she never fails to engage the audience–but she does it more in the manner of a rock star throwing a little anecdote in before the next number; the stories always feel less important than the music. And I never felt the Singer achieving or working toward peace as the character. McDermoth is so presentational and “on” that it conflicts with the quiet, heartbreaking revelations in the stories and the quirky, soothing lullaby-like quality of the songs.
True, any director would have to make big, bold choices to allow the show to fill the large proscenium space of the Tony Kiser Theater, but I’m not sure all the specific choices here make a lot of sense, down to the gleeful destructiveness embedded into the final joyful, cathartic dance break. Kelly’s choices seem to push the piece away from intimacy and honesty every time, without ever quite reaching the kind of over-the-top spectacle that delights on its own terms. We’re Gonna Die is always enjoyable, but feels ultimately hollow.