' Cinema Romantico: We're Gonna Die (a theatre review)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

We're Gonna Die (a theatre review)

Art, as “Manhattan’s” mononymous Yale once opined, is nothing if not a working through, which Young Jean Lee’s play “We’re Gonna Die” so invigoratingly demonstrates, opening with the Singer of a punkish New Wave band played by the literally (figuratively) ablaze Isa Arciniegas in the Haven Theatre production helmed by Josh Sobel I saw here in Chicago, sauntering on stage and launching not into song but confessional. And while she does eventually kick out the jams, each one is precipitated by a monologue as soul-bearing as it is comical. It suggests an episode of VH1 Storytellers told from a therapy couch. But see, that actually sells “We’re Gonna Die” short because even if it probes the psychological depths of the Singer, it is not a morose personality study or some methodological exploration of the songwriter’s process. It captures, in a way I never really dreamed possible outside the live music experience itself, the way in which rock concerts – whatever the band, whatever the venue – become rhythmic church services of sorts, where sins are ineffably confessed and forgiveness is melodically tendered. By the end, when this production is hurling balloons into the air and dropping confetti from the ceilings, whatever was weighing you down when you walked in has been miraculously lifted.


The Singer’s first confessional concerns a youthful encounter with her Uncle who inadvertently and unknowingly indoctrinated her into the meanness of this world. She explains she turned this harrowing memory into a song which she then performs, mirroring the structure of the whole show, monologue/song, monologue/song. And the rawness and occasionally deliberate unwieldiness of the monologues only works to spotlight how a great song can condense and elucidate what we feel. And the songs are premium all the way through, though they gradually rise in not only quality but meaning, emblematic of any great concert’s ascending route, and filled out by a backing band (Spencer Meeks on guitar & bass, Sarah Giovannetti on drums, Jordan Harris and Elle Walker on keyboards) that could have held its own in the heyday of The Pyramid Club.

The band is present for the whole show, even throughout the Singer’s stories, mostly listening but occasionally chiming in with peanut gallery annotations or comical drum fills, which seemed to me not necessarily planned themselves but just sort of implemented in a Do It When The Spirit Moves You kind of way. This underlines how any great show is spontaneous and wholly original unto itself even if the setlist never varies. Unintentionally this was further illustrated when Arciniegas momentarily got her foot tangled in the microphone chord, grinned knowingly and then carried on, because a great frontwoman is never deterred.

Arciniegas is a great frontwoman. She’s doing that thing, that thing that Bruce Springsteen does in concert, where what he’s saying might obviously be something he’s said many times before but nevertheless effects the power of a preacher’s scripted sermon. Arciniegas, after all, is ministering to the congregation, truly, moving to the edge of the stage and appealing directly to the audience, holding us in the palm of her hand as she lifts us up. The stories she’s telling, while no doubt partly pulled from Young Jean Lee’s own life, are universal, evoking life events familiar to all of us, and that universality is part and parcel to the best concert experiences when everyone in the room is standing up and singing together. And so when the Singer’s concluding monologue inevitably broaches the thorniest subject of them all – namely, death – the show achieves the zenith of universality, holding up everyone’s darkest fear and then just sort of blasting it back with a zero fucks cannonade, jubilantly illuminating how live music not only gives you life, it takes the edge off death.

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