The Etiquette of Death

by Chris Tanner and others
Directed by Everett Quinton and Julie Atlas Muz
Choreographed by Julie Atlas Muz
Featuring Chris Tanner, Everett Quinton, Greta Jane Pedersen, Brandon Olson
Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street
June 16 2012 — July 1, 2012
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
June 21, 2012

(L-R) Chris Tanner, Everett Quinton. Image by Ves Pitts.

The set sparkles with green glittery trees and the stage is speckled with yellow bricks, and yet mid-plot references are made to Judy Garland the woman rather than Dorothy her most famous juvenile celluloid role.  We are poised to travel to Oz, and then, disco ball be-damned, the adventure takes unexpected segues into hyper Divine-ness (including one character miming defecation) or serious discussions of deaths of friends. These miscues mark the nature of this production — no one road traveled but a number partially traversed. Drag queens and women playing women and men playing men and both genders playing hench-bitches and pigeons and caretakers — it’s a drag treatment of death and the meaning of life without a through line. With moments of charm (and we’ll get to them) this piece doesn’t quite stay afloat, never quite finds a consistent tone that everyone on stage shares.

The burlesque is opened with Agosto Machado portraying Ellen Stewart herself, be-wigged and ringing the bell to mark the beginning of the this final production of La MaMa’s 50th anniversary year.  Machado then transitions into Esmeralda, a character with almost no lines for the balance of the play, who is a nonprofessional caretaker to the dying son Joey (Brandon Olson) of business woman Joan (Chris Tanner), whose bevy of saleswomen sell Avon-like beauty products door to door.  Joan’s blonde bouffant-wearing sales force sometimes strikes a kind of “Beauty School Dropout” close harmony and choreographed pomp (which can be fun). Joan’s forces of good fight the spectre of Death (Everett Quinton) and his/her “Hench-bitches” and an army of Pigeons.  Joan strikes a bargain to postpone Death taking Joey by Joan giving Death a kind of beauty makeover.  And then other plot points take over (including Joan’s own partially addressed cancer diagnosis) and this structure is shelved in favor of sequence such as two sisters exchange stories of the deaths of people they know, one gluttonously scarfing food while the other gets increasingly drunk.  In the end we are reminded, with a stage full of characters killed without stage blood, that we are all going to die so enjoy life while we can.

The show features the charming Madeleine Peyroux-like delicate jazzy voice of Greta Jane Pedersen as the goddess Isis, who wafts in and out of the action in a diaphanous ensemble.  Strong singing voices and stage presences of Chris Tanner as Joan, Brandon Olson as son Joey, and Everett Quinton as Death suggest the power that a pared production might have provided. As this stands, there are moments of entertainment in a long evening of romp and bathroom humor.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 23, 2012)

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