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Death in the Theater: Making the Afterlife Funny with Chelsea Marcantel

Chelsea Marcantel isn’t afraid to speak out about death. In fact, the playwright behind well-known works like “ease‘ kinda thinks it’s important. In her latest play “The Upstairs Department” which runs at Signature Theater through June 12Mercantel’s characters plunge headlong from the land of the living into the world of the dead, face grief and have a hell of a time doing it.

The Upstairs Department follows siblings Luke (Zach Livingston) and Colleen (Annie Grove) as they struggle after the death of their father. Luke thinks he may be able to communicate with her father beyond the grave, so they both take a road trip to Lily Dale Church, meet up with spiritualist Shiloh (Joy Jones), and try to figure out what’s going on . From there, Colleen’s skepticism collides with Luke’s true belief.

While the play is filled with heavy themes of grief and loss, it is comedy through and through, capturing the absurd relationship between siblings.

“In the really darkest and toughest times that I’ve been through, even in the real moments, there’s always someone cracking a joke,” says Mercantel. “I don’t think that’s just my family or friends, that’s the human reaction, we can’t stare too long at things that are really awful or really hard, someone has to lighten the mood so we can all kind of absorb one breath… I think it’s kind of a writer’s responsibility not to just take the audience into dark places and leave them there.

And yet there is something cathartic about the piece. It’s been a helpful way for Mercantel to process the pandemic, which is getting recognition in The Upstairs Department.

As Marcantel explains, “It has helped me process the grief of the pandemic, the kind of nebulous, impersonal grief, the cloud of sorrow that hangs over everything. It helped me a little bit to work with… Also, I think the more we talk about death and grief, the less taboo it becomes.”

Aside from breaking taboos, the joy of The Upstairs Department is that it really is a spectacle.

We’re not floating in space. It is people today who are looking at each other and evaluating their relationships and their own lives in real time. Compete like gladiators in the arena, that’s every scene.”

And the three-person cast list adds to that feeling, not to mention that the play’s director is a respected actress Holly Twyford. Mercantel found pleasure in working with all of them, calling Twyford’s insight “truly invaluable”, describing Jones as having an “ethereal, commanding presence” and praising Grove’s ability to “show and show himself fully [be] on the scene,” admitting that from the start she wanted Livingston to audition for Luke’s role.

So if you’re looking for a direct line to the other side, pull out your Ouija board, call up a medium, and swing over Signature theater for “The upper department.” It’s the funniest form of memento mori.

The Head Department‘ is on view at Signature Theater through June 12. For more information, see signtheatre.org.

Signature Theater: 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA; 703-820-9771; sigtheatre.org // @sigtheatre

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