Make-up meets mortality in “The Etiquette of Death”

Chris Tanner as Joan Girdler (left) and Everett Quinton (seated) as Death. Photo by Ves Pitts for La MaMa E.T.C.

The cast of “The Etiquette of Death” on stage on opening night, June 14, 2012. Photo: Edward M. Gómez

Forget sex, any aspect of which has been so overexposed, the whole subject is a bore whenever anyone still tries to use it to shock. It’s been done, uh, to death.

But death – now there’s a subject that’s still taboo, and most ironically so in America, one of the world’s most fecund homes of the culture of death, where an insatiable appetite for violence and war-making has made all the dying that goes with them the stuff of big box-office entertainment. But death as the result of violence or aggression is only one kind of final curtain, not to be outdone in the pain, misery and heartache life’s inevitable end can cause for the dying and those who love them by a long list of merciless diseases.

It takes no courage at all to strap on an M4 or an M16 and head off to kill innocent people in the Bush-Cheney regime’s lingering legacy wars of choice, but it takes all the courage in the world to slip into a pair of high heels, a gown and one of coiffeuse-to-the-stars Perfidia’s mile-high wigs, look Death in the face and say: “Baby, you need a makeover!”

That’s exactly what Chris Tanner, Everett Quinton and a cast of off-Broadway theater luminaries do in “The Etiquette of Death,” a new song-and-dance revue that mixes high camp with deep philosophizing about the character and impact of the fate that awaits us all. “The Etiquette of Death” is running through July 1, 2012, at La MaMa E.T.C.’s Ellen Stewart Theater in downtown Manhattan. This world-premiere production is the final presentation of the theater’s current, 50th-anniversary season.

Billed as a Chris Tanner production, the extravaganza sprung from an original story line the well-known downtown painter, sculptor, actor and theater artist had conceived; he further developed the script along with a team of actor-writer-dramaturge collaborators that included, among others, Quinton, choreographer Julie Atlas Muz (the show’s dance and movement creator), Penny Arcade and composer-bandleader Jeremy X. Halpern.

“The Etiquette of Death” tells the story of Joan Girdler (Tanner), the doyenne of a cosmetics company who runs a tight corporate ship and demands of her door-to-door saleswomen results as big and impressive as her hair. Joan’s adult son, Joey (Brandon Olson), is dying a slow, agonizing death, and her monstrous, potty-mouthed daughter, Christy (Lance Cruce), is out of control.

When Joan learns about another, very personal crisis that could rock her world, she enters into an unusual pact with one of her home-shopping program’s biggest fans, Death herself (Quinton), in a plot twist that will make your foundation crack and your mascara run, as do some of the story’s other unexpected developments. One of Joan’s beauty tips to her faithful customers: “When you walk into a room, everyone should just die – now!” She tells Death, when they meet: “Etiquette Cosmetics could make you drop-dead gorgeous!”

Death voices some zingers, too, as when she notes, “You’re born. There’s your life, and then there’s me. I’ve never heard back from any of my clients.” Fascinating in the froth of serious fun “The Etiquette of Death” serves up is one of its most powerful subthemes: That’s a critique within the play’s broader examination of how death is approached (through everyday euphemisms and customs) of notions of feminine beauty in our media-saturated, sex-obsessed culture. It’s a critique that is made all the more inescapable – or provocative – through the performances of male actors playing women.

When their comical characters break through the farce in moments of real, three-dimensional tragedy, the empathy they prompt is undeniable, and the drama is potent, as in an absurdist, accusatory confrontation between Joey and Christy (“Where were you when Papa died?” one demands; “Where were you when our doggie died?” the other later retorts) that serves as a hard-hitting reminder of death’s impact on the inner circle around the deceased.

“We color you beautiful!” the cosmetics maven and tragic queen Joan Girdler coos, offering her products’ happy promise to the women of America. With humor, inventive staging and a big shot of fabulousness, “The Etiquette of Death” colors one of literature’s biggest, most serious subjects in every shade of shiny lip gloss. It also provides a potent and welcome reminder in the face of Broadway’s overpriced pap for the out-of-town masses that the enduring spirit of sassy, sophisticated, relevant-to-its-times cabaret theater is not dead. Experience this kind of courageous-clever spectacle, and if you don’t die laughing, you’ll die crying.

One comment

  1. [...] Tanner recommends looking at recent blog post on gender in the play by Journalist Edward M. [...]

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