When a show about death starts with video clips from Mork and Mindy, Woody Allen, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, you can safely assume it’ll have a comic bent. And it’s clear from the first two minutes of The New and Improved Stages of Grief that Mary Carpenter — the show’s creator and performer — knows what she’s doing.
Her hour-long show, chronicling the loss of three important people in her life and her long strange path from then to now, is clear-eyed and smartly written, performed with practiced comic timing and a wonderfully honest, expressive sense of fun.
Perhaps it’s simplistic or unfair to think of Carpenter’s solo show as simply a grand-old-time, inspired as it is by such a troubled period. But the performance is so candid and genuine that we can’t help but laugh, with recognition and empathy, as she shares. “Grieving is a very personal, uncharted, uncomfortable and often awkwardly funny experience” Carpenter says in the program note, and of course she’s right.
Sometimes comedy is a tool for switching off and escaping, but in cases like this, the impulse to laugh can be an act of trust and openness. For this 60 minutes, a wave of sad and a bubble of fun get all shook up into fizzy and enjoyable piece of theater.
We are sometimes told, when something awful happens, that grief works in five stages: denial, followed by anger, then bargaining, then depression, and finally acceptance. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though — they leave out the stages of Doritos, Facebook, and tuna casserole, among other things — so here,Carpenter explains the road she walked.
Sometimes she plays Dot, a TV-inspired suburban housewife dispensing cheery tips on etiquette. In other moments, she gets the audience involved, which works especially well during a humorous questionnaire about the financial implications of self-medicating. Frequently, still photos are projected on the back wall to add to the story. Some sequences are bizarre, some silly, some pared down and simple. It’s all right on target.
Carpenter has been in Philadelphia for the last two decades acting, teaching, and directing in addition to writing. Her experience shows; she’s funny, precise, witty, and honest. Grief ultimately achieves a nice balance between sober distance and a more raw emotional exposure — particularly memorable during an imagined conversation with God, during which Carpenter comes close to boiling over before she realizes that, you know, you’re not supposed to tell God to go screw himself.
The story is nicely structured, and the writing is clean and tight, sprinkled with some good ad lib. By show’s end, in fact, this reviewer actually wanted another 10 minutes or so. This is encouragement rather than complaint; with such an adept guide as Carpenter, Grief has the potential to grow a bit richer, perhaps, by taking us a little deeper down some of those rabbit holes.
What’s striking, watching Carpenter’s evolving sense of her world after loss, is the degree to which dealing with grief centers on figuring out how those around you expect you to act. This is perhaps Carpenter’s most salient theme — the ongoing necessity of your social and communal connections during times of hardship. Her thoughts on how to behave at the funeral — make those around you feel better! — is interesting given the fact that Grief is, in some way, an event not unlike a funeral, given that her task in both arenas is to employ her sense of humor and resiliency to assuage the uncertainties of those who have come out to see her. She performs her okay-ness for us so that we feel better about hanging out someone who has suffered.
But of course it’s more than that too. Grief is also clearly an act of therapy for Carpenter, and an exercise in tenacity. The engaging story she’s crafted, and the savvy way she delivers it, let us appreciate her all the more.
The New and Improved Stages of Grief has 5 performances, ending July 26, 2012 at Caos on F, 923 F St NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets