Blue Rider Theater

For the past few weeks I’ve been on a death watch as a close relative fades away, and the experience has reminded me once again that death is seldom a private affair. Family members and friends gathered around the dying person react like an organism in distress. First there’s the free-flowing expression of loss–a hemorrhage of grief. But that’s soon followed by shock, which produces all sorts of bizarre reactions. Grown children of the dying person may revive ancient rivalries with astonishing ferocity, while old cronies combine their sorrow with dark thoughts about their own mortality. Weeping suddenly yields to laughter, anger precedes sentimental memories. Only when this shock passes does the organism begin to heal, and learn to go on despite the loss.

Sorrow, humor, selfless love, selfish needs–the presence of death blends them together into a hallucinatory experience, and Passing On evokes this kaleidoscope of emotions with an intuitive understanding that is astonishing.

This is not a simple narrative. As the narrator points out, “Everybody’s life makes a pretty good story, but the most difficult are stories about families.”

Passing On is a story about a family–not the surface activities that provide the raw material for so much melodrama and comedy, but the inner life, the invisible connections among the various parts of the organism. Such elusive material does not lend itself easily to a straightforward plot, so the show consists of scenes, ranging from the realistic to the wacky, all improvised by cast members under the direction of the audacious Donna Blue Lachman.

The scenes revolve around the accidental death of a young woman named Rachel, played by Lachman, who falls off a mountain trail while traveling in Nepal. Her death itself is not shown, but the moments afterward are. Her spirit frantically walks in circles, shivering and moaning that there’s “no path down” to her friends and family. The strange image powerfully evokes the nagging, unresolved issues left in the wake of sudden death.

Many of the scenes are impressionistic like that, suggesting moods instead of building a coherent narrative. Some images are purely whimsical. In the first scene, for example, the narrator, a relentlessly cheery spirit played by Cindy Orthal, provides a “history” of death, featuring a stooped, grunting cave woman who resembles a bag lady. As life flourishes on earth, the primitive woman becomes covered with strange organisms until the angel of death, born from a garbage bag between her legs, arrives to pluck away the excess life forms. Very strange.

But some of the scenes are pure naturalism, such as the one in which the adolescent Rachel consoles her best friend, whose father won’t let her go to an Elvis Presley concert.

Despite this odd blend of realism and surrealism, Passing On retains an intuitive logic that is as compelling as a dream and terribly, painfully funny.

Actually, Passing On is more about life than death. The point is that people who love each other are connected by deeply submerged emotional bonds. And these bonds are submerged for good reason–bitterness and contempt are often mixed with affection and admiration, and such ambivalence is hard to handle. But in the presence of death, those emotions can be forced to the surface. They puncture the calm like a breaching whale–loud, massive, and awesome–and then disappear from sight, reminding everyone of their fierce attachments to each other.

Since a plot description would give the wrong impression, let me give you some random flashes from this beguiling show:

Rose and Jules, Rachel’s mother and father, are young lovers living in Paris. While dancing a passionate tango, Rose announces that she’s pregnant–news that inspires wonderfully inept poetry from both. “I have a jungle growing in my womb,” says Rose, breathlessly, while Jules gallantly predicts, “My rose will give birth to a flower.”

Rachel’s deceased grandmother, played by a three-foot dwarf, is a former pilot. While flying her granddaughter’s coffin, which has suddenly sprouted wings, she recalls the moment her future husband handed her a ring. “That’s when I realized that passion is not flopping around in the dark like a couple of dying fish,” she says.

Nicolai Balabushkov, Rachel’s passionate Russian lover, is inconsolable after her death, but there’s still something funny about the enormity of his grief. “I will slice the muscles of my face so I can’t smile again,” he vows.

The cast members deserve praise for their performances, but also for the ingenious improvisations that shaped their roles. Lauren Campedelli created Rose twice–as an adventurous, impassioned young woman, and as a grieving mother sitting at her daughter’s coffin shredding a garment and bewailing her desertion by both her husband and her daughter. “Why isn’t anyone satisfied with your love Rose?” she wails, accusing herself of inadequacy.

Kevin Burrows, whose rough, gravelly voice makes him sound like Tom Waits, accomplishes the same transformation as Jules, magically transplanting the bohemian independence of the young man into the body of the aging father, who hasn’t lost his wanderlust and is always leaving his daughter and wife for the excitement of yet another trip.

Tim Fiori’s performance as Nicolai brilliantly combines comic relief with a palpable expression of grief. Joan Deschamps embodies the self-pity of Rachel’s best friend, who is bitterly disappointed with life and with herself. (Her brief appearance at the beginning is wonderfully odd.) And Salvatore Iacopelli brings a mysterious beauty to the “shadow,” who represents death.

But there are two cast members chiefly responsible for giving this show its glorious surreal quality. One is Tekki Lomnicki, whose diminutive stature adds a Felliniesque aura to every scene she’s in. The grandmother, as played by Lomnicki, puffing on cigarettes and delivering oneliners, radiates a personality so strong it seems to permeate both her daughter Rose and her granddaughter Rachel.

The other performer is Lachman herself. Onstage, she is intense, complex, and authentic–in other words, a terrific actress. But I suspect her biggest contribution to this show took place during rehearsal, where she guided the cast through improvisations on a topic that invites histrionics. Somehow, she conveyed a vision to the cast members, and extracted inventive, surprising material from their improvisations. The show is ‘still under construction, so the mood and tempo of the piece may vary from night to night, but the family organism that Lachman and her cast have created will certainly bleed, suffer, and heal itself at every performance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.