09 December, 2022
It has often been said that there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy. That cliché seems relevant in discussing the new play Dead + Alive currently having its world premiere production in New York. A press release describes the work as “Dark, whimsical and inspired by death (and clowning), Dead + Alive follows a devoted clown duo as one clown mourns their partner’s death while trying to keep their soul from escaping to run amok as a dybbuk.” A dybbuk in Jewish folklore is a malevolent spirit that attempts to enter the body of a living person.
The show was conceived by Helen Hayes and Edinburgh Stage Award winner Richard Saudek and is co-directed by Saudek and Pher. The production also features live original music by Benjamin Domask-Ruh.
Dead + Alive has been reviewed as an “inspired piece of vaudevillian theater with a seemingly unlikely inspiration” (blogcritics.org). A review in theaterscene.org states “it entertains with ambiguity while being laced with depth,” and further calls the production “magical.”
I posed to Saudek some questions about the show. He also stars in Dead + Alive as a particularly lively corpse with Dana Dailey performing his mourning sidekick. As noted in its press release, the production addresses “loss and the difficult realization that the show--just like life--must go on.”
Q: What was the impetus behind the creation of Dead + Alive? What themes is the show exploring?
A: The very first routine I learned was a basic two-person skit called “Dead + Alive.” I’ve become fascinated with the idea of using old clown tropes to explore large, sometimes unfunny and unsettling topics in my work. This show is about mourning, grief and loss but it’s also contextualized within the world of the circus and the “show must go on” mentality that was promoted by 19th-century circus financiers, the powers that be.
Q: Your bio states that you ran off to join the circus at the age of 10. Can you describe what that experience was like? How did your familiarity with circuses impact your development of Dead + Alive?
A: I was in a youth circus called Circus Smirkus when I was 10. I followed my older sister’s advice (she’s a tightwire walker). She said that I ought to join, so I did! The experience was incredible. Not only the performing part but the communal part. People are misguided when they refer to something as “a circus” when they’re describing a mess. Like, when people say “ugh, congress is such a circus”. In fact, the circus is an incredibly well-oiled machine where everybody has everybody else’s safety in mind and everybody is counted upon to do chores and take down the tent and move on to the next place as efficiently as possible.
Pher, the co-director of Dead + Alive, and a circus artist, wrote the following in the program and I think it encapsulates how a familiarity with the circus relates to our thoughts developing this show. She writes: “Accounts of circus disasters are most often unobjective, sensory descriptions of performers failing to defy death, attempting to describe the circumstances that lead to tragedy. Eye-catching, front-page stuff. There are very few accounts of the performers who live on without their ensembles, loved ones, and partners. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t sell. Maybe it’s too painful to put into words. This show is exploring the very real consequences of losing a partner but within that context of circus performance.
Q: Was there anything particularly memorable or unexpected that happened during the course of the creation and rehearsal of the show?
A: During the course of the creation of the show my co-star, Dana Dailey, started medically transitioning right before the first work-in-progress. As a result, she has become emotionally (and physically) “well-rounded”...she told me to say that. She plays the ‘Alive’ character, and she is, as she puts it, “alive” now.
Q: Is there anything, in general, you would like to tell audiences about Dead + Alive?
A: I want people to know that this is a show for theater people, circus people and everybody in-between! I think it’s unique…and I hope that it’s a sort of quintessential New York theater show that is unique to this community of downtown performance artists.
Q: Would you like to share with us what your future projects are?
A: Well, hopefully there’s a life after this NYC run of this show! It can breakdown and travel in, basically, a suitcase…so I think after we tackle this initial run, we’ll start reviewing our options for a more international crowd to see it.
Dead + Alive is performing through December 10 at the Connelly Theater located at 220 East 4th Street in Manhattan. For more information on the production and to purchase tickets log onto https://www.richardsaudek.net/dead--alive.html and watch the trailer here!
Photo Credit: John Behlmann