Book of the Dead (Second Avenue)
Book of the Dead (Second Avenue)
John Moran's Book of the Dead (Second Avenue), a multi-media exploration of life and death in the modern age, opens with an overview of the Egyptian Book of the Dead and closes with excerpts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But what the show is really about, as the subtitle indicates, is a day in the life of New York City's Second Avenue.

After we are given a brief idea--through words, images, music, and action--of the ancient Egyptian understanding of death and rebirth, the scene shifts to a busy morning at a Manhattan McDonald's. As the show moves on, we see street scenes, vivid recreations of TV commercials, the inside of a cramped deli, and a pulsating dance club at night.

Throughout, nameless characters interact (or try to interact), attempting to make connections with the world around them. Men idly talk, a bicyclist moves through the street in a trance, a lonely old woman craves conversation, a man flirts with a bartender, and a homeless person screams for the world to leave him alone. This is all put into a much greater context at the end, as we are made to see how our world fits into the grand scheme described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

As a whole, Book of the Dead manages to be a meditation on the cyclical nature of existence, in which every ending leads to a beginning and vice versa. But this is not high art; Moran is trying to create something fascinating and fun here. He's more wont to call the show an 'attraction' than anything else. And, indeed, it feels like a more grown-up, complex version of something you might see at the Epcot Center in Disney World.

One of the most notable aspects of this piece (and most of Moran's previous 'operas') is that it is set to a soundtrack. Virtually all the sounds and dialogue are lip-synced. The incredibly skilled cast members mouth their own pre-recorded words quite convincingly, and even their movements are choreographed to match sound effects. This soundtrack is digitally created and composed by Moran, as are the visually stunning slides and set. The show also features excellent sound and lighting design by Andrew Keister and Jonathan Spencer, respectively. It all coalesces into a beautifully orchestrated techno-opera.

Moran's subjects are intriguing enough in and of themselves, but he makes them more intriguing by approaching them in unexpected ways. For example, when the above-mentioned club scene begins, we don't really know it's a club at all. At first, we are only privy to one side a man's conversation with an unseen person; then a bar is brought in, the scene is replayed, and we hear both sides of the conversation between the man and his friend, the bartender. Next, we see that the bartender is also conversing with a man at the other end of the bar, moving back and forth between the two patrons. Yet another dimension is added as loud music and flashing lights reveal to us that these people are at a bar inside a club. When the scene is replayed yet again, we can barely hear the conversations.

It's a fascinating theatrical experience to see various scenes in Book of the Dead from different perspectives as Moran examines how different layers of sight and sound make up the most common of daily interactions. Moran is interested in the music of life, from the sounds to be heard in a McDonald's to the musical patterns in our speech. He doesn't spell it all out for us, but we start to get a sense that all life moves to music--sometimes a pounding backbeat, sometimes a mournful dirge, sometimes a barely audible whisper.

Had I been asked to title Moran's work, I would have been more inclined go with Book of Life; but I guess it's all in the way you look at it. Either way, Book of the Dead (Second Avenue) is exciting in its uniqueness, reverberating with both spirituality and amusement park-like fun.