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Over the last year or so, there have been more deaths and near-deaths in my life than I’d care to count, so when I saw that Bite the Dust, inFLUX Theatre Collective’s 2023 Fringe Festival offering, promised to “[dive] into the fascinations and fears that bubble to the surface as we confront life’s biggest unknown,” I was curious whether the show would resonate with me. And in its own very Fringe-y way, I suppose it did.
The stage at the top of Bite the Dust is set with all of the accoutrements of a still-life painting. Atop a draped black platform, a skull and an assortment of fruit sit as if waiting for their painter to come by and make them immortal. We learn quickly through the character of volunteer museum docent Bill Morty (Christine Octavia Shaw) that the Dutch were the first to include the image of a skull in still-life paintings as a reminder of the fleetingness of life—ironic, as Bill points out, given that these paintings have survived hundreds of years.
The skull is a recurring theme in Bite the Dust, appearing at different times (often in reference to Hamlet), but other bones and blood and viscera also appear on stage frequently, even with Bill’s lunch of choice: a hot dog. (A quick note to any attendees who are uncomfortable watching performative eating or who have a highly developed sense of smell: real hot dogs and other foods are used in Bite the Dust, and a lot of urgent face-stuffing happens at various points.) But perhaps the most, um, visceral use of anatomy in Bite the Dust occurs when Bill goes to the doctor (Jacqueline Libby, who also plays all other roles) for what should be a routine procedure, and the doctor instead locates Bill’s pancreas and crumbles it to dust.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest types of the disease. It’s hard to detect before it’s terminal, and only about 8.5% of pancreatic cancer patients are alive five years after their diagnosis. And it’s what Bill discovers early in Bite the Dust that he has.
A dance with death
Being told you have three months to live is understandably unsettling. Bill handles his diagnosis by going off-script and leading his invisible museum tour group through a closed exhibition that he isn’t authorized to give tours of anyway, stopping to observe famous works of art (recreated by Libby with a creative assortment of props and costume pieces) before finding himself engaged in a tango with a red-clothed woman who either is or transforms into a giant maggot who also serves as Hamlet’s gravedigger. (It sounds weird, but it mostly works.) Things unspool from here until, in the end, the stage is a mess, with food and blood and bones helping Bill to learn to accept his fate and set his own terms for his death.
I don’t want to give any more away, so I’ll just say this: if you have recently put a loved one to rest, depending on your personal headspace, you may find the final moments of the performance touching or arresting or upsetting.
But that’s death, and that’s (often) the Fringe. Your mileage may vary.
What, When, Where
Bite the Dust. By Jacqueline Libby, Christine Octavia Shaw, and Jacinta Yelland. $5-$50. Through September 13, 2023, at the Icebox Project Space inside the Crane Arts Building, 1400 N American Street, Philadelphia. phillyfringe.org.
The Icebox Project Space is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Masks are required for all performances of Bite the Dust.
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