Review: Grief is Hard to Juggle in "Dead + Alive"

Dead + Alive

Conceived by Richard Saudek

Directed by Richard Saudek and Pher

Presented by One Year Lease Theater Company (OYL) at the Connelly Theater

220 East 4th St., Manhattan

November 29-December 10, 2022

Richard Saudek. Photo credit: Pher Gleason

One might not think of juggling as providing an experience of mournful beauty, but Dead + Alive, which tackles loss by way of vaudeville, will change your mind. Dead + Alive, developed during a fellowship held by co-creator and co-director Richard Saudek at LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture and making its world premiere at the Connelly Theater, focuses on two clowns, Dead (Richard Saudek) and Alive (Dana Dailey), who perform as a duo. While both begin the show alive and clowning, their character names give you a pretty good hint of where things are headed, leaving Alive in a position inspired by the Jewish burial custom of assigning a guardian "to watch the recently deceased to ensure that the soul doesn't escape and run amok." Alive's vigil and the (mis)adventures of Dead's soul (and corpse) marry dexterous, funny physical theater with moving poignancy for a unique rendering of mourning and moving on.   

"Dead and alive" is a classic clown routine in which the "dead" member of the duo cannot be placed in an entirely prone position no matter what their opposite number tries. We see this routine early on, with cheerily upbeat music and live sound effects provided by Music (Benjamin Domask-Ruh), who also acts as the audience's charming usher into this world; and if later reality doesn't precisely recapitulate routine, it comes very close, including through specific echoes in a scene which features all four cast members on stage together and, in flawless combination with lighting and sound design and the context of what has preceded it, achieves a positively ethereal effect. While the clowns' early performance takes place on a classic shallow proscenium stage with footlights and a heavy curtain, death also brings a very effective spatial shift (one which we could swear that, by some coincidence of physics, was accompanied, very appropriately, by a waft of cold air). A pleasingly macabre song provides another marker of Dead's transition into death, and while Dailey gets a lot of chances to be funny, she also brings a touching gravity to Alive's experience that nicely balances Saudek's elastic performance as Dead. When the Stagehand (Pher) hands Alive a prop to keep her performance going or she wearily and silently gathers the fallen tools of her–no longer their–trade, it is impossible not to share in her sorrow. It was noticeable how, after a certain significant point, some audience members clearly wanted to applaud the performers' demonstrations of skill, as they were encouraged to in the early going, but were unsure if it was still appropriate–a testament to the effectiveness with which the production blended moods and deepened the audience's investment in these mostly wordless characters.

Dana Dailey and Richard Saudek. Photo credit: Pher Gleason
Early on, Dead mimes the part of a gallant, flower-picking lover to Alive's admired lady, and even if one doesn't see the pair as more than professional partners, the metaphoric parallels to anyone with a long-term romantic partner are surely available. The show must go on, after all, and, after a long partnership, Alive must learn, as most of us will have to, how to juggle by herself again, even if she drops some rings or pins along the way. As the show reminds us, however, no show goes on forever, so make sure to see Dead + Alive while you can.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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