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Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance

Dael Orlandersmith’s Virgil takes us through what we are often reluctant to talk about openly – our mortality and how we have or have not spent our life.

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Dael Orlandersmith in a scene from her “Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance” at Rattlestick Theater (Photo credit: HanJie Chow)

Tony Marinelli

Tony Marinelli, Critic

It is a rare author indeed that can take uncomfortable material, and by uncomfortable that is, to hear, digest, and process a subject no one likes as a subject of conversation, and then give an audience the opportunity to take away from the experience a profound enlightenment. But when that author is Dael Orlandersmith we have come to expect nothing else. The playwright’s new work, Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance, is a contemplative meditation on mortality as much as it is an examination of how we choose to pass and live out our days until our own “conclusion.”

The play is not without its tears. We are present for not one but the two deaths of Virgil’s parents, with a watchful eye particularly on the celebrations of life that come from paying our respects, both privately and in the company of the guests at a wake. It is at Virgil’s father’s wake that there is the epiphany.

Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance has had its own artistic journey, rivalling the one the character Virgil takes during the course of the play. Coming out of the entire world’s hunkering down in the face of the Covid pandemic, Orlandersmith has provided us with a brutally honest work of self-examination: these are the questions that came up for all of us while we sat pretending to be patient, whether we admit to that or not. Rattlestick Theater presents this New York premiere in partnership with Lowell, Massachusetts’ Merrimack Repertory Theatre, where the play first climbed a stage in May 2023. It then made its way to Shepardstown, West Virginia’s Contemporary American Theater Festival this past summer. Along the way it went from what was advertised as a 90-minute one person show to the trim 60-minute piece we see before us now. Not knowing what is gone from the original script, we still marvel at how riveting and intense a piece it remains.

Dante’s Inferno, Part One of his La Divina Comedia, courtesy of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation, opens with “Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark/For the straightforward pathway had been lost./Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say/What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,/Which in the very thought renews the fear./So bitter is it, death is little more.” The visual the audience sees upon entering the Rattlestick is a stage with five very self-contained “silos,” stagefloor-to-ceiling cylinders resembling the girth of redwoods, yet they are covered with beaded strings that we can see through. One masks the armchair a parent sat in, another represents a DJ’s table, and another is meant to provide a reflection of Virgil while on the subway. The five together are Virgil’s Forest, but in Manhattan and the Bronx.

Dael Orlandersmith in a scene from her “Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance” at Rattlestick Theater (Photo credit: HanJie Chow)

The prologue is done almost otherworldly. Yes, it is Dael Orlandersmith’s voice either from backstage or pre-recorded, but the content could be our own. “I was always aware of Time – time in terms of how it is spent…One becomes aware of THEIR own time, Do they look back at themselves, Connecting/reconnecting, Wondering, Have I done right? Have I used time – MY time right?…Can you look back and say, Yes I did it right or No I didn’t do it right Or Worse yet, Did I do ANYTHING at ALL?”  They are the ponderings of the character in this play, but they are also the innermost thoughts of those, particularly the creatives, that survived the pandemic…and we certainly had plenty of time to give these thoughts their due. Setting these words against the dark forest of the stage sets the tone for the entire play.

Orlandersmith, the playwright, like Virgil, is a keen observer of people, whether it be on the subway, or in the workplace, but most painfully at home. It is only with the death of Virgil’s mother is it realized that Virgil and their siblings lived in a house with a mother they barely knew. While very young Virgil was conscious of how few words were spoken between the parents, “the dullness in their eyes/Their talk was small talk…Good morning/Good night…What’s on tv?,” blaming it on too many televisions in the house, it is the father referring to the repetitive grind of his workweek that allows Virgil to juxtapose it against the father quoting Duke Ellington, “Music is how I lived and how I will be remembered.”  Food for thought for Virgil, “How he lived a life he loved/ How His work was his vocation and How many of us can say that/How many of us can REALLY say that?”  The irony is that adult Virgil in their 40’s is reinvented by the death of the parents, finding purpose and solace in mortuary science.

In college days, the dullness was removed by an appreciation for music. Virgil hears someone say, “I like seeing Virgil – Virgil always carries and brings Music and makes everything come alive.” In a staff of young people, a more senior DJ who was a failed musician was the template for how not to live one’s life.  Subway scenes that color Virgil’s 20’s, 30’s and 40’s occur “at 78” to borrow recording speed. Virgil in their 20s remarks on the “close-to-dead” people on the subways trapped in their dull jobs and barren lives. Virgil in their 30s realizes how music no longer satisfies while watching people rushing and eating their breakfast on the subways, not making time to “live a life” well-lived. Virgil in their 40’s contemplates “I STILL don’t know why I’m HERE.”

Virgil and their siblings suffer the embarrassment of not knowing enough about their dead mother to work with the funeral director on a bio for the service. They find out their mom and the funeral director’s sister would occasionally escape into Manhattan for a French film and a café, creating another life for the woman who barely spoke at home. By the time the funeral director was done fleshing out the bio, “the way he worded everything/the way he described her life – she was someone you WANTED to know.  She was someone we regretted not knowing.”

Dael Orlandersmith in a scene from her “Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance” at Rattlestick Theater (Photo credit: HanJie Chow)

A year later to the day, the father dies. Unlike the mom’s sudden death, Virgil and the siblings are prepared for the father’s passing. Cancer forces the father to move to a facility where Virgil meets a humane and loving hospice care nurse. Orlandersmith has hauntingly beautiful moments as the compassionate Peggy Callahan. Her pathos helps to create a living breathing person we can see complete before us. Likewise, Orlandersmith’s embodying of the family friend/funeral director Jimmy McHugh is a portrait of someone we would all like to have comfort us when we are in need. The depths of humanity in these two people provide the impetus for Virgil’s finding a purpose and vocation “midway upon the journey of our life.”

Orlandersmith prompts us to see the mortuary work vividly. In the hands of another writer and actor, it could have been gore upon more gore. She makes us see the beauty in and the spirit behind the care of the dead. Heartbreaking moments of preparing the bodies of a young rape victim and a ballet student-turned drug addict, while descriptive, are to the point what drives adult Virgil to become that compassionate person the families of the dead rely on.

Director Neel Keller has been a collaborator on past Orlandersmith plays and no doubt has helped shape some of the most compelling moments of this play. As is typical with a great director’s work, we don’t feel an imprint as much as we feel a gentle guiding hand at work.  Takeshi Kata’s scenic design and Nicholas Hussong’s projection design define space so effortlessly. They help define little space as much as shaping vast expanse. Kaye Voyce’s simple black outfit with silver accents for Orlandersmith is an astute choice for travel over decades. Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting for the play is acutely sensitive to the most intimate moments, particularly lighting what must be seen through the hanging beads. Lindsay Jones’ sound design truly captures city sounds as they celebrate the life of the city while they interrupt moments of peace.

As is the way with Orlandersmith’s work, literature using simple language bordering on the most evocative poetry, Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance gives us a treasured and welcome opportunity to see one of the most gifted playwrights today perform her own work once again.

Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance (through March 9, 2024)

Rattlestick Theater, 224 Waverly Place, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.ovationtix.com

Running time: 60 minutes without an intermission

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Tony Marinelli
About Tony Marinelli (50 Articles)
Tony Marinelli is an actor, playwright, director, arts administrator, and now critic. He received his B.A. and almost finished an MFA from Brooklyn College in the golden era when Benito Ortolani, Howard Becknell, Rebecca Cunningham, Gordon Rogoff, Marge Linney, Bill Prosser, Sam Leiter, Elinor Renfield, and Glenn Loney numbered amongst his esteemed professors. His plays I find myself here, Be That Guy (A Cat and Two Men), and …and then I meowed have been produced by Ryan Repertory Company, one of Brooklyn’s few resident theatre companies.
Contact: Website

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