"Alcestis" plays in Pasadena

Russell Edge and Kalean Ung in "Alcestis" at Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena. (Courtesy of Theatre @ Boston Court / June 22, 2013)

Mortality: the inexorable reality of life and the unsettling theme of Critical Mass Performance Group's movement-based and myth-inspired new theater piece, "Alcestis," at Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena.

Deeply researched, based on multiple translations of the Euripides classic about a wife who saves her husband's life by offering to die in his place, and on other related works by contemporary writers, this substantive, arrestingly physical new piece opens with a stark question projected onto a plain backdrop: "How do you live with the fact of your death every moment of every day?"

Answers come quickly from the impressive eight-member ensemble (Russell Edge, Ray Ford, Lorne Green, Danielle Jones, Nick Santoro, Jeremy Shranko, Valerie Spencer, Kalean Ung) facing the audience in a downstage line-up. We live, they say, with the daily fact of our inevitable death by reading a book, doing the dishes, watching TV, falling in love, getting married, having children — in essence, they are saying, we live by ignoring our mortality through the self-protective denial inherent in our own day-to-day definitions of reality.

But ignoring death is not an option in this disturbing yet often funny piece, created by Critical Mass founder and artistic director Nancy Keystone in collaboration with her ensemble, as a co-production with Boston Court.

After their introductory recitation, the performers seamlessly assume individual roles on a nearly bare stage as Queen Alcestis (Ung) and King Admetus (Shranko) sit at breakfast in their bathrobes reading their respective newspapers.

It has been two years since Alcestis volunteered to save her husband from his then-imminent demise by sacrificing her own life, thus fulfilling the terms of an agreement struck by the god Apollo with the Fates. But Alcestis' death has been slow in coming and the strain on the couple is showing.

"I didn't agree to die so I'd feel good about myself …I don't think," Alcestis tells the audience, after Admetus' own explanatory aside: he was unknowingly carousing with the three Fates at a party, choked on wine and would have died but for Apollo's intervention. "But not dying kind of ruined the moment," she says.

Today, however, is the day, heralded by the entrance of Death (Edge), suave menace in a well-tailored suit. In this work's effective blend of the mundane, the ridiculous and the tragic, Alcestis' dying thoughts range from " I have to empty the dishwasher" and "I have to cancel my dentist's appointment" to the realization that she will not live to see her children grow. And then Admetus' angry "I didn't ask you to die for me," sparks a deathbed quarrel. If only there were time for professional marriage counseling.

The dark humor in this scene and others to come in no way dilutes the emotional truth resonating most powerfully in the play's physical movement. Ung's series of backward falls into Edge's arms as Alcestis' life ebbs, while Shranko's Admetus struggles on hands and knees to reach her is one of many haunting images that linger.

The sight of Herakles (Santoro) lingers as well, but for a different reason. Santoro enters as larger-than-life comic relief in kilt, weight belt, football shoulder pads and leopard print blanket over one shoulder. (Costume designer Sarah Brown nicely complements the shifting emotional tone and classical and contemporary elements of the piece, as does lighting designer Adam Frank.) Seeing signs of mourning, Herakles is persuaded to stay for a visit only after Shranko repeatedly leaps on Santoro, wrapping his legs around the larger actor's waist to demonstrate Admetus' unhinged desperation.

In the background, in juxtaposition to this farcical physicality, Ung and Edge lie together in absolute stillness with intertwined limbs on Alcestis' deathbed.

Among other memorable images in this multidisciplinary piece: Shranko's hunched struggle to bear dead Alcestis on his back as Admetus' burden of grief, humiliation and shame. Edge waltzing with Ung to "Seems Like Old Times," flanked by ensemble members paired off in kind. The women, active partners at first, then lifeless and sagging in the arms of the men who nevertheless continue the dance with chilling grace. The ensemble members, portraying a continual assembly line of mourners offering Admetus condolences and foil-covered containers of food. Admetus' overwhelming grief made palpable by Shranko's repeated, curled collapses from chair to floor.

As conveyed by Shranko, Admetus' emotions are shocking in their extremity, while the awkwardness of the mourners — "everything happens for a reason," "she's an angel in God's choir now," "she's in a better place" — are all too recognizable. So, too, is the impulse that governs the mourners' death-repudiating actions before and after Admetus' departure from the scene: avid feasting and increasingly frantic embraces and couplings. Although predictable, the impact is profound.

Finally, neither audience nor performers can avoid the reality of the ramifications and unanswerable questions that are the aftermath to a seemingly happy ending.

Critical Mass Performance Group is no stranger to big issues, nor does Keystone hurry the evolution of the pieces that she creates as writer and director with her ensembles. The nomadic company's last mainstage production in Los Angeles, "Apollo," a tracing of the genesis of the Apollo space program, took years to realize. Two of its three parts were seen at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2005. "The Akhmatova Project," an examination of artists in conflict with the state, went through several workshops before its 2000 premiere production at Actors' Gang. Still in development: "Ameryka," an exploration of the historic, social and political links between Poland and the U.S.

"Alcestis" grew out of a workshop production at Getty Villa Theatre Lab in February 2012 and the organic feel of this multilayered, multidisciplinary conversation suggests that it may not be done growing. The recurring image of the Fates (Ford, Spencer, Jones) determining the finite lengths of human existence and Herakles, the loosest element in the piece, could be refined; and the rich source material, Randall Tico's sound design and Adam Flemming's projections of text and images, while strikingly effective here for the most part, would seem to offer a tempting variety of choice.

As it is, however, audiences should expect the wit, visceral power and uncomfortable truth that shape this original theater piece to remain with them for some time to come.

What: "Alcestis"

Where: Theatre @ Boston Court, Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.

When: 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends July 28. $34.

More info: (626) 683-6883, bostoncourt.com

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LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.