New York City theatergoers can rely on Flux Theatre Ensemble to pour waves of talent and energy into anything it produces. They can also usually rely on the innovative downtown company to choose or develop top-flight material on which to build its fine productions. But Flux has faltered with Am I Dead?, an earnest, intermittently funny and forceful, but woefully over-written message piece with noble intentions but gaping deficiencies.
Playwright Kevin R. Free’s brave idea was to hang emblematic tales of black men’s struggles on the trellis of the ancient Egyptian myths of Isis and Osiris. The story of Set, Osiris’s jealous brother, hacking up the Lord of the Earth’s body and scattering the parts, and Isis struggling to find and reassemble them to bring her brother-husband back to life, offers a viscerally compelling metaphor for the persecution and attempted de-masculinization of African and African-American men over the past four centuries.
But despite good acting, with especially fine work from Lori E. Parquet as Isis and Corey Allen as all the play’s black men (both “real” and mythical), the play’s intermingled stories of plantation slavery, AIDS, and racial identity are as scattered as Osiris’s limbs, failing to come to life except at isolated moments.
The setting is an “anatomical theater,” a room where, in the old days, bodies were dissected to teach anatomy. In a twist, this one is a kind of frustration-hell where those guilty of certain crimes are condemned to the Sisyphean task not of taking apart but of literally putting back together the bodies of the black men whose lives they shattered – bodies all of whose parts they can never find. We meet an antebellum widow known only as Mrs. John Gray (Alisha Spielmann) and a hyper-emotional gay Jewish man, Isaac (Isaiah Tanenbaum), who has converted to Christianity for the sake of his AIDS-stricken lover Keith (one of Allen’s numerous roles).
As the action wears on we learn, bit by bit, how the widow favored but then cruelly mistreated her slave Lewis (Allen). That story might have shone forth as the full focus of a shorter, much tighter play. But the ancillary stories muddle the message. Unless I missed something, the matter of how and whether Isaac mistreated Keith doesn’t seem race-related. And a third thread, inspired by real-life “impostor” Rachel Dolezal, about a white woman (Anna Rahn) who identifies as black, is even more befuddling: She appears honestly devoted to her black boyfriend Si (as in “O-si-ris”) (Allen again), and the play’s attitude towards her subterfuge isn’t at all clear.
Heather Cohn’s muscular staging, aided by a strong creative team with superb scenic and production design by Will Lowry, creates a grand, thick atmosphere appropriate to the mythic setting. Among other things it brings us spectacular entrances. When Isis appears in a flash of light, bringing the show its first real breath of energy, it feels as if the action will now start in earnest after an overlong setup. But the needed focus never arrives, and when Mrs. Gray has her moment of revelation amid an overlong climactic sequence, it’s far too late. “What is going on?” pipes up Isaac during the buildup. I had the same question. The answer: too much, and too little.
Much talent and effort has gone into this ambitious, richly staged production. Allen’s quick shifting among his several roles, all distinct and equally convincing, is a remarkable achievement. But the play left me as frustrated as the endlessly toiling denizens of the anatomical theater, appreciating its parts but deprived of a whole.
Am I Dead? runs through Oct. 21 at the 14th Street Y Theater. Tickets are available online.