Death is Trending at the Theater

Show-Score | By Carol Rocamora | Mar 10, 2017

It's not easy tackling the big questions around life, but that is why we have the theater. Check out these plays that focus on the end of life and all of its meanings.

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet | By "Hamlet" the film

Yes, we’re going to die. And, yes the world will end one day. Do we really have to be reminded of this? Four productions on the New York stages will tell you why, and you’ll be grateful (as well as spiritually uplifted and transformed) by the theatrical experience.

Over at the Signature Theatre, a man redefines “stand-up comedy” while sitting in a wheelchair and cracking the best existentialist jokes you’ve heard in awhile. It's only after 45 minutes into Will Eno’s new play "Wakey, Wakey", that a second character suddenly enters, and you realize that there’s more going on with the guy (yes, his name is “Guy”, played by Michael Emerson). Who is Lisa, this new arrival (played by January Lavoy)?  A loving companion, or an Angel of Death? You’ll be laughing through tears at the ultimate revelation, both in the theater and at a reception afterwards, where you’re celebrating your own life, along with the rest of the audience.   

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Also at the Signature, playing across the hall, there’s another play about dying with a surprise ending - called "Everybody", by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Lila Neugebauer. It’s a wildly unconventional adaptation of "Everyman", the medieval allegory, featuring another man journeying through life and facing death. In Jacobs-Jenkins’s unorthodox interpretation, God is played by a theater usher in a Signature T-shirt (Jocelyn Bioh), Death is a little old granny in a white sequined pants suit (Mary Louise Burke), and the rest of the ensemble (who draw lots for roles every night) play roles like Friendship, Kinship, “Stuff”, and so on. Everybody (that’s the character’s name, played by Lakisha Michelle May) spends the whole show begging the other characters to accompany her over to the Other Side. Who ends up being her companion? That’s the play’s mystery, which you’ll ultimately discover with laughter, thanks to Jacobs-Jenkins’s wicked sense of humor and abiding humanism.   

As for the history of the entire world from beginning to end, the brave Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA in Brooklyn) has resurrected "The Skin of Our Teeth", the monster epic by Thornton Wilder, from the mothballs – 35 characters and all. By the time you take Wilder’s 5,000 year journey from the ice age through prehistoric times through floods, Noah’s ark, and wars, you’ll be exhausted – but oh, what a gorgeous production, directed by Arin Arbus, offering some of the most stunning stage images of the season (by set designer Riccardo Hernandez).

Finally, there’s Caryl Churchill’s "Escaped Alone", that just finished its run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (sorry, but watch for it, it’ll be back), directed by James MacDonald. Four septuagenarians sit in a pretty garden somewhere in England, drinking a cup of tea and chatting about children and shopping and what-not. The sun is shining, the birdies are chirping, and so are the ladies.  It promises to be a pleasant under-one-hour afternoon at the theater - that is, except for those seven interludes when the conversation freezes, and one of the little ladies steps out of the garden and into a cavernous void. Alone, she shares with us a nightmarish vision of a planet suffering post-nuclear devastation and global chemical pollution; featuring plagues, starvation, auto-cannibalism, birth deformities, floods, fires, violence, insanity, dislocated cities, presidents committing suicide, and images of armies firing nets to catch flying cars, while pets rain down from the skies.


"Had enough?" That’s a warning from Caryl Churchill, one of our greatest living political playwrights.  Meanwhile, let’s go back into that safe, sequestered garden and heed the moral of "Everybody". “Be nice to each other,” says God to the audience, in her final farewell.  

Carol Rocamora is Show-Score's newest writer. She is a theatre reviewer, educator,  translator, playwright and biographer.  She teaches at NYU's Tisch of the Arts and the Juilliard School. Her work has been featured in The Nation, The New York Times, the London Guardian, The Broad Street Review, and she currently writes for American Theatre and Theater Pizzazz. She's a member of Outer Critics Circle, Drama Desk, and American Theatre Critics Association.

What shows inspire you to ask life's big questions? Let us know in the comments below!