The Undertaking on Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at Duke Was The Civilians’ Multimedia Exploration of Death

Duke Performances presented The Civilians in <em>The Undertaking</em>, written and directed by Steve Cosson, on Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Sheafer Lab Theater on Duke University's West Campus in Durham
Duke Performances presented The Civilians in The Undertaking, written and directed by Steve Cosson, on Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Sheafer Lab Theater on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham

The Civilians, a Brooklyn, NY-based investigative theater company led by artistic director Steve Cosson and managing director Jane Jung, creates new theater, based on creative investigations into our world’s most vital questions. The troupe has performed all over the country; and on Sept. 29-Oct. 1,Duke Performances brought their latest research-based production, The Undertaking, to the Sheafer Lab Theater on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, NC.

Civilians writer-director Steve Cosson extracted verbatim accounts from an extensive series of interviews with everyday people and explored them in a complex, multimedia-inclusive play in which two actors, one male and one female, take on all of the parts. The play hones in on one interaction in particular: between Cosson himself (portrayed with sincerity and vulnerability by Civilians regular Dan Domingues) and interviewee Lydia (played with purity and vitality by Irene Sofia Lucio).

Both actors embody multiple characters, jumping back and forth with ease. Changes in physicality and voice are clear and strong, especially with Lucio.

Together, they discuss the interview process and how stories of death and dying could best be told — and whether Crosson himself should appear in the play that he’s constructing. The fictional Steve shares the results of his investigation with Lydia, as the two actors jump into the personas of various interview subjects. Shamans, philosophers, undertakers, and nurses all reflect on what happens (or doesn’t happen) after a human soul escapes its mortal shell.

A whirlwind of media help to tell these stories. Video projection (designed by Tal Yarden), including morphing abstract backgrounds, combine with intense lighting (designed by Thomas Dunn) to thrust the actors into locations across the globe as they jump from character to character, sharing one brief monologue after another.

The characters can leave the stage, or hide onstage, and be seen via a live video feed from a smartphone on a selfie-stick. Lydia’s photography studio, which serves as the play’s canvas, is ably designed by Marsha Ginsberg, who also designed costumes. A complex soundscape is designed by Mikhail Fiksel, and subtle vocal manipulations through the actors’ microphones are a unique touch. Becky Parker Geist integrates her props seamlessly within Ginsberg’s canvas.

The integration of metafiction, effective technology, superb acting, and fascinating material made The Undertaking theater of the finest quality, and some of the most inventive and engaging that I have ever seen. Each of the four performances at Duke was followed by discussions with the director, the cast, and a member of the Duke faculty. Hopefully, you were able to catch it while it was in Durham; but if not, hop on your private jet and make your way to the Festival d’Automne at Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, where The Undertaking will be presented Oct. 5-8.

If you’re interested in participating in this project’s online extension, you can shoot a one-minute video of yourself answering the question “What do you think happens after you die?” Upload it to Instagram or Facebook, using the hashtag #UndertakingYou, and The Civilians will share your video via Extended Play, their online publication.

The Civilians’ The Undertaking was produced in collaboration with Jessica Mitrani. The company is advised and represented by Octopus Theatricals.

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 30th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Jackson Cooper:; and Sept. 28th Durham, NC Indy Week interview with writer and director Steve Cosson, conducted by Byron Woods: and Sept. 28th mini-preview by Brian Howe:

The Civilians in THE UNDERTAKING (Duke Performances, Sept. 29-Oct. 1 in Sheafer Lab Theater on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham).






The Undertaking (2016 investigative theater piece): (official web page).

The Civilians (Brooklyn, NY investigative theater company): (official website), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), (Wikipedia), and (YouTube).



Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.