The emotion of grief is a terrifying thing for most people. It is so frightening that it is hidden from one’s everyday perceptions and denied when seen in social interactions that define the human condition. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the idea of five stages of grief in her 1969 book On Death and Dying, an idea that has now morphed into seven stages. It was and is a convenient structure to understand the emotional and behavioral actions of people dealing with loss.
#UglyCry, an intensely interactive play written and performed by Katie Mack with deft direction by Susanne McDonald, is a real-world exploration of grief that touches on the various stages. Mack does this by directly engaging the audience on-stage before the show begins. She makes the viewers comfortable with an affable, focused, sincere woman while running on a treadmill. It is a skillfully executed manipulation of the soon-to-be viewers of her story as a way of engaging them with the difficult thing they are about to experience.
What is remarkable about Mack’s performance is that she is reliving the grieving process with every performance. It is not a fictional story with an actor taking on a role; this is a powerful emotional connection within her life. Using regular references to the audience’s use of cell phones, she guides us to her discovery of what it means to talk with the dead.
This show encourages using cell phones to take pictures, make recordings, and, most importantly, scan QR codes posted on the theater walls or that may appear on an upstage screen during the show. They contain information that will enhance understanding of the show or will guide to articles that will expand on some of the ideas being presented. These QR codes are designed to be a visceral engagement with grief as Mack experienced the loss of her ex-boyfriend and long-time friend Eric Anthamatten in 2011.
She received the phone call of his sudden death shortly after receiving a text from him as he was traveling in Mexico. Eric was a philosophy professor, writer, actor and martial arts expert, among his many talents. His sense of justice is what led to his death when he tried to help someone who was being attacked, only to be killed as a result.
Mack cleverly raises the question of using the internet as a way of communicating with the dead. She uses this as a way of dealing with the idea of intractable loss. Is reading text messages from a lost person or watching a video from them engaging with them? She shows in her performance how various ideas that come from the experience of social media intersect with the stages of grief: the shock, pain, anger, denial, depression, and other feelings that crash or tiptoe into the everyday use of social media.
The scenic design by Natalie Rose Mabry is bare-bones, with a treadmill and upstage projection screen as the main elements. It is effective in focusing attention on Mack and on the projections being used to guide the interactive aspects of the show and to illustrate some of the events that followed Eric’s death. Juliette Louste’s lighting design and technical direction work seamlessly with Shannon Knapp’s sound design. All these elements are critical in staging this interactive production.
#UglyCry (through November 18, 2023)
Off The Wall Productions
36th Street Theatre, 312 West 36 Street, Floor 4, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit https://www.ticketor.com/carnegiestage/tickets/uglycry-262749#buy
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission