The Briefly Dead
An ancient myth gets updated and extended in this off-Broadway play.
The press release from 59E59 Theaters announcing the world premiere of Stephen Kaliski's The Briefly Dead describes the work as "A Doll's House, Part 2 for the ancient Greek theater." Specifically, it's a sequel to Euripides's Alcestis, a tragedy about a woman who dies for her husband. But there's a crucial difference between what Lucas Hnath did with Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece and what Kaliski does with Euripides's. The Nora Helmer of A Doll's House, Part 2 is the same Nora as in A Doll's House, just 15 years older. The Alcestis of The Briefly Dead, however, is a fundamentally different person from her fifth-century BCE self.
As Euripides wrote her, Alcestis died not because she wanted to but because honoring her husband mattered more to her than life. The Fates had decreed his death but agreed to spare him if he could find a substitute. The only volunteer was Alcestis, notwithstanding her two children and the kingdom of which she was queen. The twist Kaliski introduces is that Alcestis was depressed, if not suicidal.
Whether eager for death or not, Alcestis didn't have much time to experience it. One of those Euripidean tragedies with a happy ending, the Alcestis concludes with Hercules rescuing the deceased queen from the underworld and restoring her to her husband. The Briefly Dead picks up from there, armed with an intriguing premise: What does this improbably reunited couple say to each other now?
Not content with that question, Kaliski complicates matters by rendering the resurrected Alcestis amnesiac. She doesn't remember her kids, her sister, or the woman who introduces herself as her "quote unquote best friend." She doesn't even remember her husband, Admetos, despite his best effort to re-create their first meeting at a sushi bar. So distraught is he when his wife pulls back from his sexual advances that he dons a blazer and sets off for the underworld to retrieve her memories, which are stored in a trunk.
If these proceedings strike you as indulgently quirky, you're not alone. The world Kaliski and director Elizabeth Ostler have created hovers somewhere between Greek mythology and present-day reality. Admetos is still a king, but he has a personal assistant, not servants, and reads Sylvia Plath. There's nothing wrong with riffing on a classic, but this reimagining values effects over coherence. Some of the play, for instance, unfolds as shadow puppetry. Alcestis's children loom as silhouettes on a screen, and while the shape of an infant expanding to larger-than-life size distills her fear of mothering, it clashes with the exacting realism of other moments, as when she pours Admetos a bowl of Nature Valley Baked Oat Bites.
The heterogeneity extends to the show's design elements. Peri Grabin Leong's costumes float between the ancient and modern, from the flowing white pleats of Alcestis's gown to her husband's business casual ensemble. A chaise longue reminiscent of a Greek dining couch forms the centerpiece of Kyu Shin's set. On it, Admetos fiddles with a tablet (smart, not wax) that plays a variety of pop songs (sound and lighting design by Jessica Greenberg).
Anchoring all the whimsy is Jenna Zafiropoulos as Alcestis. From her first scene, in which she's literally speechless (three days is how long it takes someone back from the afterlife to regain the ability to talk), she exhibits a poise at odds with the people and words whirling around her. After she finds her voice, she uses it commandingly — when she peremptorily fires her husband's assistant, audience members have no doubt they're in the presence of a queen. No wonder the objections of Admetos, dotingly played by Ben Kaufman, have so little effect. Sharing Zafiropoulos's aplomb is Sofiya Cheyenne as a next-door neighbor; sharing her grace is Katie Proulx as Alcestis's sister.
Euripides ended several of his tragedies, including the Alcestis, with the observation that the gods bring many unexpected things to pass. So too has this production, which forces ancient characters into a world of cheap sushi and Norton anthologies. The Briefly Dead is messy, but maybe that's to be expected when prying with the past. As Alcestis herself says, "Drag me back from the grave, and you're gonna get some dirt." In this case, it's actually Zafiropoulos as Alcestis who's immaculate and the rest of the show that needs cleaning up.