Los Angeles Theater Review: WE’RE GONNA DIE (Ivy Substation in Culver City)

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by Jason Rohrer on November 21, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


New York downtowner Young Jean Lee’s 2011 rock concert-with-monologues We’re Gonna Die begins very well – at Wednesday’s Los Angeles premiere, a horrifyingly sad story had the audience breathless within a couple of minutes.  The show ends with a thoughtful flourish, choreographed with disarming physicality by Faye Driscoll and enthusiastically directed by Paul Lazar.  Between those five-minute end-caps, for fifty minutes Ms. Lee intersperses anecdotes of loneliness and pain among Williamsburgish art-rock songs of her own composition.  (She sings accompanied by an excellent quartet assembled for the show; her band, Future Wife, is Mike Hanf, guitar, Andrew Hoepfner, bass, Ben Kupstas, keyboards, and Booker Stardrum, drums.)

WE'RE GONNA DIE - Young Jean Lee and Future Wife

The choice of disposable pop music as a vehicle for profoundly unpleasant human truths might be an inspired one.  Ms. Lee’s lyrics underline in Crayola colors the most banal conclusions to be drawn from these everyday sketches of loss and pain – essentially, everyone suffers, and that’s okay, because that’s how it is.  In keeping with the straightfaced earnestness of the whole production, the performers are dressed by Roxana Ramseur in adorable childlike hipsterwear, their haircuts a cavalcade of 80s TV nostalgia.  Ms. Lee acknowledges that these stories, and the blunt investigations they provoke, are not subtle or deep.  But, she says, they are the only thing that has helped her feel better.

WE'RE GONNA DIE Young Jean Lee and Future Wife.

There is something post-good about Ms. Lee’s dramaturgy, something purposely non-revelatory, non-theatrical, so matter-of-fact as to remove the veil of art and simply relay theme like a thesis statement in a five-paragraph essay.  Its unsophistication can feel affected at times; some of those song lyrics really are astonishingly naïve.  The material probably benefits more from the intimacy and charm of a cabaret format, as originally conceived, than it does from the Ivy Substation proscenium.  But as it is, most of the show consists of baldly staged repetition: Ms. Lee deadpans an anecdote, walks upstage for water, stands and declaims a song with the band, deadpans an anecdote.  Once or twice per song she dances for a few bars, and for a moment the show blooms.  But her persona is minimal, verging on vacuous, a counterpoint that does not do much to assist the comparatively nuanced text.  Even when singing (her voice is intentionally unpolished) she keeps the “performance” element to a minimum.

WE'RE GONNA DIE - Young Jean Lee and Future Wife.

The real irony is that when she does come alive and show enthusiasm, when she moves her body or even animates her face – when she performs – she is arresting and the show takes off.  If she and Mr. Lazar had staged this whole song cycle as theatrically as they have its climax, I would have had less time to contemplate the facts of life as understood by an intelligent 5th grader.

photos of New York production by Blaine Davis

We’re Gonna Die
Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company
presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA
Actors’ Gang Theater
Ivy Substation in Culver City
scheduled to end on November 24, 2013
for tickets, visit www.cap.ucla.edu

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