DEAD + ALIVE at NYC’s Connelly Theater: A Review

Presented by One Year Lease Theater Company (OYL) and directed by Richard Saudek and Pher, Dead + Alive is currently enjoying its World Premiere at New York City’s Connelly Theater.  The story is simple, but the presentation is boldly unique, using the patented skills of each of the creative team to their best advantage.  The audience meets two, at the risk of not using a more sophisticated description, “old school ” clowns, played by Saudek and Dana Dailey.  The pair would eventually take on the roles of the titular “Dead” and “Alive”, respectively. But before that, the audience gets to enjoy acrobatics, juggling (including the juggling of knives…), and expert physical comedy.  It’s all ornamented with some impressive special effects (including a seemingly infinite supply of light rings) and even more impressive live music. (More about that later…) For these two dedicated clowns, it’s just “another day at the office circus” until a dark (albeit darkly comic) twist of fate disrupts their “tea for two”– which pretty much clarifies why the pair are named “Dead” and “Alive”.  “Alive”, however, is either unaware of her partner’s new status, or just unwilling to accept.  If “Till death do us part” applies to comedy partnerships as much as marriage, then this unique bond goes even beyond that.  WAY beyond…  And, indeed, to reiterate one of the most basic rules of “the business”, the show must go on.  Underneath the time-tested, transgenerational clowning around, Dead + Alive is actually based in part on Jewish folklore: “Alive” must keep watch over “Dead” to keep his soul from escaping to run amok as a dybbuk (defined as “a malevolent, wandering spirit”).

There are only a few utterances of actual speech in Dead + Alive.  There is also a spoken word piece: Down in the Ground, written by Brett and Rennie Sparks and performed by “Dead”.  With lyrics like, “Under the black mud in your quiet house, You have prepared my place to lie down; A house in the rock where sorrows drown. Old man or baby make no more sound; Down, down in the ground…”, which pretty much makes the character’s situation pretty unambiguous.  Other than those exceptions, the entire piece is created via pantomime, wordless acting, and superb physical performance with well-synchronized musical accompaniment. Benjamin Domask-Ruh provides that music via a variety of instruments, both common and not-so-common; the sound effects really add an “unseen dimension” of sorts to the setting. Domask-Ruh and Co-director Pher even join in for some of the onstage theatrics (Pher is an acclaimed juggler and circus expert.), but it’s pretty much Saudek’s and Dailey’s show all the way.  Saudek, in particular, is a standout, making his character the hardest working undead clown in showbiz. He can do some amazingly impressive things with his body. And, if you don’t believe that “hand acting”: is a real phenomenon, pay close attention; his fingers do indeed take on a life of their own for some scenes. Saudek and Dailey work really well together; their chemistry is believable and fun to watch. (When you are dealing with sharp objects on stage, you’d better have a good relationship with your fellow performer…)  For the audience to get invested in the characters, we need to believe their relationship.  Thankfully, the performances make it work. Dark humor and clown talents aside, reality (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) does finally set in for one of the characters. In a performance where the musical adornment is such an important part of this creative conglomerate, the final segment uses silence to its dramatic advantage.  The audience went silent as well, since it was impossible not to be moved by the final scene.

Dead + Alive continues through Saturday, December 10th at the Connelly Theater, 220 East 4 St,, New York City.  Showtimes are at 7:30PM.  For tickets, visit here. For more about One Year Lease Theater Company, visit here.

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