By Young Jean Lee
Directed by Josh Sobel
Produced by Haven Theatre Company
Playing at The Den Theatre, Chicago
A Feel-Good, Millennial Lament
If there’s one thing I’ve come to learn from seeing plays directed by Josh Sobel, it’s that—given any story, two matchsticks, and a cast of enthusiastic actors—the man can make creative magic (point and case: The Hunting of the Snark). His talents are no less evident in Haven Theatre’s current production of Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die. A series of stories on loss and loneliness delivered as a direct-address stand-up performance punctuated by live, pop-rock-punk songs, We’re Gonna Die is a triumphant lament on life, with a unifying chorus proclaiming our ultimate hope: We’re all gonna die. Feeling better, yet?
Step into The Janet Bookspan Theatre space at The Den and you will be stepping into a welcoming rock lounge: the stage is set with two keyboards and a drum set; neon lights glow off the back wall; motley, shaded bulbs hang from above; a buzz hums through the air from the mascaraed guitarist tuning his instrument. He smiles at you warmly.
If the poster for We’re Gonna Die reminds you of something from the 90’s, there’s good reason: tonight the Millennials hold the mic, and for 60 minutes Isa Arciniegas, the Singer, has several stories (and songs) from “her” life that will, presumably, make you both laugh and cry. From her first run-in and experience with loneliness with her estranged uncle and childhood friends, to the loss of her father and the reassuring words from her best friend—the message of the evening is transparent: We all die. And its tone is one of hope.
Leave it to Millennials to pull hope from the darkest of human experiences without any reasonable explanation. Who needs the God of yore, or the hash-infused spiritualism of the 60’s when you have ironic optimism? That’s what I took from this production, and I wouldn’t exactly call it edifying.
In 60 minutes we hear about a peculiar older man lulling himself to sleep with the phrase, “I’m a piece of shit” (the most intriguing story of the night); we hear how childhood friendships can sadly end spontaneously without any reason; we hear the advice of a grandmother who talks about growing old, losing one’s mind, and seeing everyone you know die; and we hear even more advice from a 30-something divorcée (whose ex was scum) who consoles our Singer with the knowledge that someday we will die, the pain will end, and someone will cry for us. Surely some weighty stuff.
But add to these stories the element of stand-up, with its heavy-beat ironical look on things, a little choreography, and the arm-flailing, hair-shaking angst of punk-rock—and all the weight of the stories gets watered down into a homogenous, sobering concoction. It works, and the ending is spectacular enough to get you enthused to die, but it was unclear to me what the point was. Something like “You’re not alone” and “We’re all in this together” sounds about right for my cohort—but it didn’t do much for me: death is always a singularly solitary experience.
Haven Theatre’s production of We’re Gonna Die features some catchy musical number and some engrossing stories whose details resound with real-life experience. For all its bleakness, the production is definitely a feel-good show that lets you get lost in the Dionysian rhythms of punk-rock angst. I’m just not sure what there is to feel good about.
Reviewed on 7 May 2017.
For more info check out the We’re Gonna Die page at theatreinchicago.com.
Playing at The Den Theatre, 1335 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $18. For tickets and information, visit HavenTheatreChicago.com. Performances are Thursdays thru Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through June 4th. Running time is 60 minutes with no intermission.