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This month marks three years since the first Covid-19 shutdowns in our region, when life as we knew it changed dramatically. The anniversary is fraught for a lot of us, a temporal reminder of grief and loss and longing. So Curio Theatre Company’s laugh-a-minute production of The Complete Deaths couldn’t have come at a better time—if laughter is the best medicine, this production is penicillin.
There are 75 onstage deaths in the complete works of William Shakespeare (although one of them is a fly). The deaths range from the truly tragic (Desdemona) to the ironically timed (both Romeo and Juliet) to the comic play-within-a-play (Pyramus and Thisbe) to the downright grotesque (basically everyone in Titus Andronicus). Cramming them all into an hour and a half shouldn’t work … which is more or less exactly why it does.
Sincerity’s quick death
To be clear, The Complete Deaths is not a faithful presentation of all of the onstage deaths in Shakespeare, although at the start of the play the audience is told that it is meant to be. Any upfront attempt at sincerity, however, is thwarted by a cast (Curio’s co-artistic director Paul Kuhn, along with Aetna Gallagher, Tessa Kuhn, and Nathan Joseph) that’s just trying to have a little fun.
So what we wind up with in director Meg Trelease’s hands, instead of a sincere ode to the Bard’s departed characters, is a multimedia performance that includes mime, expressionist dance, clowning, puppetry, and more. The deaths are all still there, but they’re not what you’d expect. Standout moments included a clownish take on Titus Andronicus, a moment in which Joseph performs two deaths simultaneously, and the moment a fight turned into a musical number that would have befitted The Blue Man Group (sans the body paint).
A family affair
The two Kuhns, Gallagher, and Joseph are all related. Tessa is Paul's daughter. Gallagher is Paul’s sister and Tessa’s Aunt. They are all cousins to Joseph. This might help to explain why The Complete Deaths cast is clearly having a helluva good time here. The good time is infectious, and it’s impossible as an audience member not to embrace the joy of the performance.
The familial relationship of the show’s cast also adds to the comedy of the show itself: in addition to all of the deaths, the script calls for a fair amount of kissing, which, as Paul and Gallagher tell us early in the show, is all being simulated to avoid any awkwardness. Shakespeare might have written characters who married their relatives, but in 2023 West Philly, some things are still taboo.
Comedy = tragedy + time
I know three people with Covid right now, so saying the virus is in the rearview isn’t fair or accurate. But the theater community is drifting back toward some version of normalcy (even if masking is required for many audiences, including Curio’s) and I’m sure that sometime in the not-too-distant future, someone will write a comedic play about the coronavirus pandemic and we’ll all want to see it for a cathartic laugh.
But to the extent that laughing itself is cathartic, The Complete Deaths gives us a hilarious soft landing-pad, three years after the world shut down, and the opportunity to heal some of the wounds that we’ve suffered since.
What, When, Where
The Complete Deaths. By Tim Crouch & Spymonkey (Aitor Basauri, Stephan Kreiss, Petra Massey, and Toby Park); directed by Meg Trelease. $20-$30. Through April 1, 2023, the Black Box at the Calvary Center, 4740 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia. (215) 921-8243 or curiotheatre.org.
The Black Box at the Calvary Center is wheelchair-accessible by elevator via the entrance on 48th Street, next to the corner steps on 48th and Baltimore. Patrons who need to access it should call ahead at the box office for assistance.
Masks are required for all performances.
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