Round House Theatre — which has produced numerous virtual plays during the pandemic — cautiously invited a limited, masked and socially distanced audience back into the building for its production of “We’re Gonna Die” and filmed it for digital streaming audiences. The theater plans to open its doors to everyone for in-person viewing come fall.
The play is a mixed bag of complicated emotions about hope in the face of despair.
Although it has clearly good intentions, the choice to produce “We’re Gonna Die” as the U.S. tries to recover from COVID-19 might seem a bit tone deaf to the families and loved ones of the more than 600,000 people in the United States who did die during the pandemic.
Even under different and more normal circumstances, the play — while heartfelt — comes across as overkill (no pun intended) in the end.
The play, written by writer, director and filmmaker Young Jean Lee, is the story of one woman retelling her struggles of growing up and looking for comfort. The action is accompanied by a band of four supplying mostly indie rock music.
The premise is that even though the woman goes through much heartache during her young life (I’d guess the character is in her 20s or 30s) — friends reject her as a young child, she experiences a bad breakup with a boyfriend and even struggles through her father’s gruesome death — she comes to the realization that “we’re all going to die” some day and that it will be OK.
That sentiment alone makes sense and brings some comfort, but in a bizarre and confusing fashion, the woman and her band members are ecstatic over this fact — singing, dancing jubilantly and yelling from the rooftops the show’s title. The tone comes off as cavalier.
I don’t believe, however, that the notion of accepting death in this instance was meant to be anything but positive — not so much glorifying death, but rejoicing in life itself, no matter its pains and sorrows.
As eloquently put by Ryan Rilette, Round House’s artistic director, and Ed Zakreski, its managing director, in the show’s program: “We end our digital season and this extraordinary period of our history with a show that celebrates life itself. ‘We’re Gonna Die’ may seem, from its title, like depressing content, but Young Jean Lee’s very personal show celebrates finding hope in tragedy. She encourages us to find happiness in all circumstances and in whatever we are doing, because that satisfaction is what will lead to true contentment.”
Of course, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
If one can get past the seemingly morose (to some) message that death should be celebrated, not just accepted, the play has its attributes.
It is extremely difficult to pull off a one-woman show, and Regina Aquino, a Filipino-American actor and activist making her Round House debut, delivered a strong performance and held her own. Her acting and stage presence is strong and her singing, though it started off shaky, grew in tenacity as the production advanced.
Paige Hernandez’s direction and choreography is clear and clean with plenty of passion and fluidity.
Singers/musicians Manny Arciniega, Laura Van Duzer, Matthew Schleigh and Jason Wilson, known as the Chance Club, a staple of the local music scene since 2014, are making their full-band Round House theatre debut. They are placed in separate cubes lining the back of the stage and have just the right touch as accompaniment, without overwhelming the storyline.
In the end, Round House Theatre gives a good argument for finding comfort by accepting one’s worst fears. “That our lives have meaning because they are going to end…and that’s okay,” as explained by Douglas and Lorraine Bibby, who helped sponsor the production.
All through the play, after each mishap, the main character is comforted in some small way that is more acceptance of reality than dramatic fix, much like a lullaby sung to a baby to fall asleep.
In fact, as dramaturg Naysan Mojgani points out, traditionally lullabies are interspersed with tragedy.
“In ‘We’re Gonna Die,’ Young Jean Lee mixes cheery and uplifting music with dark and existential themes,” writes Mojgani. “However, we should all be very familiar with that juxtaposition — we’ve been hearing it all our lives, after all. So many of the lullabies our parents sang to comfort us live in the same space.
“The slow gentle rhythm of lullabies has a whole host of positive benefits for babies, regardless of the words being sung.… And so, oftentimes, the words are more for the caregiver singing them than they are for the child listening. Music offers a way to express and communicate deeply unsettling ideas while simultaneously soothing the listener.”
All said, “We’re Gonna Die” inspires a complex set of emotions for deep meditation about the circle of life. For this reason alone, it’s worth watching.
“We’re Gonna Die” is available on-demand streaming through July 25. Tickets are $32.50 (one per household). For information, click here.
Lisa Troshinsky is the theater reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.a