What better way to celebrate La MaMa’s 50th Anniversary season than to round up a gaggle of actors and writers; assemble a musical play about death; get Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton and choreographer Julie Atlas Muz—former Miss Coney Island and Miss Exotic World—to co-direct it; hire a seven-piece orchestra led by Jeremy X. Halpern; and return them to the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, where not a few of them have been treading the boards for decades! This is precisely what actor, artist, singer, writer, and long-time East Village catalyst, Chris Tanner, did. And the answer is — there is no better way to celebrate the late Ellen Stewart and her legendary theatre than to bring her ‘family’ back into the fold.
Left: Cast members of “The Etiquette of Death.” Photographer: Christine Gatti. Poster art by Erwin Gorostiza. artes fine arts magazine
While the storyline is relatively simple – we are treated to a 2-½ hour duel to the death between Joan Girdler (Chris Tanner), the latter a talk show hostess and beauty product entrepreneur, whose son Joey (Brandon Olson) is dying of AIDS, and Death (Quinton Everett). Its execution, with many corollary vignettes thrown into the mix – is anything but. Add a fabulous set (Steven Hammel)—just as good, if not better than Broadway’s Jesus Christ Super Star—costumes that have many of the dancer-actors dressed as pigeons (Becky Hubbert), and top it off with Isis, the diaphanous winged goddess of fertility, played by the beautifully voiced Greta Jane Pedersen, and presto, you get a near-camp musical extravaganza.
The evening begins surprisingly—but fittingly so—with La MaMa founder Ellen Stewart, brilliantly channeled by Augosto Machado, long-time East Village star, and one of Ellen’s oldest La MaMa “babies – welcoming the audience to the theatre by ringing a bell just as Ellen always did at each production. For many of us whose history with Ellen goes back decades (I like to say that I knew Ellen before her accent), it was sad being reminded that the Ellen we thought would live forever is no longer with us. Augosto—doing double duty—also plays Joey’s nurse. His heartfelt monologue on the role of caregivers, at the height of the AIDS epidemic during the 1980s, was one of the more touching moments in the play.
Right: Greta Jane Pedersen as Isis and cast members in the World Premiere of “The Etiquette of Death.” Photo: Ves Pitts.
The play belongs to Tanner and Everett, its two dressed-in-drag divas, albeit mostly in the number of words they deliver, the scenes they appear in, and the songs they sing. I am talking stage time. With lines, as written, not prone to elicit riotous laughter, nor with character parts that are particularly lovable, it is still fun to watch the dueling divas negotiate the twists and turns of the script. One ‘plus’ is that Tanner has a beautiful voice and an extremely compelling stage presence. Why he’s not in a Broadway play—he certainly can reach the back of the house without a mike—is a question I always ask myself. He needs to move uptown, if only to show it what it’s missing. In spite of the fact that both actors gamely carry the play forward to its climax, as the entire cast gathers to repeatedly sing “We’re all going to die,” the parts of the ‘musical’ that show the most promise are not the musical asides.
Left: Chris Tanner as Joan Girdler (standing) and Everett Quinton as Death (sitting) in the World Premiere of “The Etiquette of Death.” Photo: Ves Pitts.
The two most compelling scenes, attributed to Taylor Mac, take place in a restaurant. Here a slightly rotund Jacky (Beth Dodye Bass)—she also play a pigeon in the play—is seen stuffing her face, plate-after-plate like a hungry pig, while Holly (Robert Appleton), drinking to the point of becoming tipsy (and then some!), talks on-and-on about friends of theirs that are dying. Both finely acted scenes—especially on Appleton’s part—are genuinely funny. Eventually, Jacky takes the slightly-drunk Holly’s arm, after having eaten everything in sight, and ambles off stage. At the play’s end, stuffed with much of the same fun and silliness, we all do the same.
By Edward Rubin, Contributing Writer
Edward Rubin, based in New York City, writes on the arts, culture, and entertainment. He can be reached at email@example.com
“The Etiquette of Death”
Director: Everett Quinton
Contributing writers and composers include Penny Arcade, Lance Cruce,
Angela DiCarlo, Martha Girdler, Jeremy Halpern, John Jesurun, Beena Kamlani, Taylor Mac, Stephen McCauley, Edgar Oliver, Brandon Olson, Greta Jane Pedersen, Jon Ritter, Penny Rockwell, Tony Stavick, Sebastian Stuart and Chris Tanner.
Musical Director: Jeremy X. Halpern
Choreographer: Julie Atlas Muz
Costume Designer: Becky Hubbert
Set Designer: Steven Hammel
Lighting Designer: Susan Hamburger
Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa
66 East 4th Street
New York, New York 10003
Previews began June 14, Opened June 16. Closed July 1. The show contained nudity and is appropriate for ages 17 and up. For more information visit http://LaMaMa.org
Thanks to David Gibbs, DARR Publicity (718) 721-7907