Death Play. Sounds off-putting, doesn’t it. Or intriguing, if your thoughts and interests quirk towards the dark side. In reality, this highly emotional, very personal work of theatre art, is profound in its depth, while being extraordinarily entertaining, with laughter and angst existing side by side in the moment-to-moment exploration of grief over the loss of loved ones. Written and performed by Lisa Dring, Death Play’s source is her own personal experience and so is a kind of performed memoir and more, dealing as it does with the perception of woman as maiden, mother and crone in all its universality. Toss in as well the specifics of ethnic identity, in Ms. Dring’s case Asian, the genes of her Japanese mother dominant over those of her father with his mongrel-European roots. Death Play is a rare, electric, utterly absorbing evening with a young woman who engages the audience with such affecting intimacy that this writer found himself leaning forward in rapt attention.
At the beginning, one hears from off stage what can only be the keening of grief, but of a ritualized type. Ms. Dring enters with the bent posture of a classic crone. The keening and the anger of grief, in all its various manifestations, crop up over and over as the actor tells the stories of the death of her father, mother and grandmother, who all died while she was in her mid-twenties. She is angry with her barely-known father, who died in far-off Thailand, for his abandonment, loving him while hating him, mourning the forever-lost opportunity of contact. The mysterious, uncommunicative Japanese grandmother died with stories untold. And her mother died, perhaps unnecessarily, by neglecting a nagging pain that become mortal.
But it is the story of her manifold, contradictory reactions to all this grief that is the most fascinating and entertaining. She tells her personal story with great candor reinforcing her words with dance, movement and mime. She easily shifts from engaging entertainer to the characters of her story. Tour-de-force is not too strong a term for her accomplishment.
Death Play is smartly directed by Jessica Hanna, with an evocative stage design and lighting by Kirk Wilson. White, the color of death and mourning in Japan, dominates, with white, origami cranes hanging in profusion from the grid, with even more strewn about the stage. Sound design by Jeff Gardner (with additional sound by Ray Salas) is refreshingly subtle and Ms. Dring’s costume by Ann Closs-Farley is ideal for character and movement.
Circle X Theatre Co.’s production of Death Play runs through April 23 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, in Los Angeles.