February 5th, 2010



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Posted: February 4, 2010 - 10:41 pm

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By Mike Dunham

An outbreak of plays about death has hit Anchorage. Last month Anchorage Community Theatre staged “Heart.” This month Cyrano’s presents “Tuesdays with Morrie.” And, in a frustratingly short run, after premiering in San Francisco, William Bivins’ “The Afterlife of the Mind” is having its Alaska debut at Out North.

These three deal with the same slice of the whole death business. Not the apocalyptic horsemen of war, famine and plague — but the personal confrontation each individual has with his or her own fears. The meaning or meaninglessness of life, The difficult decision to let go. The high cost of living.

Like “Heart,” “Afterlife” has its roots in the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, where both had well-received readings. They share the device of having a dying character’s disembodied consciousness serve as a sort of narrator. And they both use comedy to make their subject less fearsome.

“Afterlife’s” humor has a wild edge largely supplied by a single character. But much of the dialogue revels in lofty and refined philosophical speculation.

That’s because the dying party in “Afterlife,” Harry, is a professor of philosophy. (“Heart’s” main character is a plumber, which gives the whole play a different tone.) Harry spends the last half of the play as an illuminated, ruminating face, but actor David Flavin is able to bring the part to life with compelling facial expressions and a wonderfully resonant voice.

Harry’s wife, Lydia, played by Lisa Starling, is desperate to save his mind from the impending death of his body. She contacts a discredited, alcoholic surgeon, operating out of a bar, who may be able to transplant Harry’s brain into the body of a “beating-heart corpse.”

Paul Brynner’s mad performance as Dr. Ulrich is worth the price of admission. He takes the role over the top, but that’s sort of required and the result is hilarious. Impressively, he does it all with a camp German accent while managing to make every word clearly understood.

Janet Stoneburner is also funny as Ulrich’s assistant, Dinah. The remaining roles are smaller and calmer: Jane Baird plays an Episcopal priest trying to instill a sense of faith and rationality into the atheistic and hysterical Lydia. This role was written for a male, but the gender switch made here due to casting issues may be an improvement.

Erick Robertson performed well in the part of Todd, a young man with brain cancer whom Lydia tries to seduce into becoming the host for Harry’s cerebrum. Sarah Baird had a series of shadowy personas representing aspects of Harry’s consciousness such as desire and curiosity. And Sean Patrick Smith appeared in a part that I can’t describe without giving away one of the craziest parts of the plot.

The set, used in conjunction with slides, worked effectively. The slides gave context to the props; for instance, the section on the right side of the stage made up as Ulrich’s bar was accompanied by a photo of the exterior of the bar. They were also used between scenes to project weighty comments about existence and death from thinkers like Pascal, Sartre, Kierkegaard and others.

These philosophical observations take chewing to digest; perhaps the slides should stay up a little longer than they did on opening night. But the existential and ontological jousting doesn’t bog down the script. (The play runs 90 minutes with one intermission.) If anything, it builds to a profound conclusion.

In that sense, “Afterlife” resembles “Tuesdays with Morrie.” It might be rewarding to see and compare both plays. But catch “Afterlife” first — it ends on Valentine’s Day.

THE AFTERLIFE OF THE MIND will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 4 p.m. Sun. through Feb. 14 at Out North Theatre, 3800 Debarr Rd. There will be no show on Feb. 7. Tickets are $18 online at www.outnorth.org or $20 at the door.