Death and denial were made for each other, but for those facing tragedy, the raw truth can be a tonic.
In "We're Gonna Die," theater artist Young Jean Lee turns the bleaker facts of life into a delightful, hourlong hipster cabaret. The show, a presentation of UCLA's Center For the Art of Performance running through Sunday at the Actors' Gang at the Ivy Substation in Culver City, introduces one of New York's most exciting experimental playwrights to Southern California.
Daft, direct, unvarnished and stylishly awkward, Lee's shape-shifting work doesn't try to bowl us over with its polish and professionalism. Her plays, as ingenious as they are ingenuous, attempt to innocently pull off the impossible.
In dramatic works such as "The Shipment," in which racial stereotypes are magnified by an all-black cast, or "Lear," a reworking of Shakespeare's masterpiece minus the titular king, she transforms drama into a series of cannily planned accidents. Cracking through artifice with the playful ruse of amateurism, she exposes something essential about her subject, the more baldly embarrassing the better.
In "We're Gonna Die," Lee mines her autobiography for catastrophes, major and minor, without shedding a single tear. Putting a positive spin on the adage "misery loves company," she generously offers pearls of wisdom that have momentarily relieved the isolation of her bouts with heartache and grief. Her deadpan humor only makes the gift that much more companionable.
Fronting her band Future Wife, she tells stories of events that left her feeling gutted then sings original songs of a dark electric folk bent. Sample lyric:" What makes you so special/That you should go unscathed?"
She does this all with a straight face and the silly sailboat sweater and yellow jeans of a free-spirited Brooklyn naïf, one who needs a swig from a little plastic water bottle every few minutes. Her four male band members, delivering a concentrated dose of nerdy-coolness, accompany her in managing the paradox of being fully committed while not taking anything too seriously.
The late Lou Reed was apparently a big supporter of this show, and his influence is detectable, as is the liberating example of Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson, artists who have created unique hybrid forms of performance marrying personal storytelling with music.
The difference with Lee is that she's primarily a playwright, not a singer or musician, and the music of Future Wife serves more as a vehicle for her aesthetic than an autonomously interesting creation.
She also steers clear of lyricism — poetic indirection is not her style. But "We're Gonna Die," directed by Paul Lazar, has a conversational appeal that is utterly disarming. Lee begins with a tale about holiday visits from her pitiful Uncle John that wends its way into a lullaby made expressly for neurotic insomniacs.
She revisits her first major relationship and crushing breakup, concluding with a ditty that offers the songwriting equivalent of an ice compress: "The only words of comfort for the lonely/The very words that they will never hear/I'm coming over now/I'm coming over now." And she recounts her father's harrowing death from lung cancer, an experience that leads to the epiphany that she is not exempt from the human condition.
One might consider this pretty basic knowledge, but consciousness has a way of filtering what's most frightening. To help us over our fears and to bring some cheer to our collective plight, Lee invites us to join her and the band in repeatedly singing the lyric "We're gonna die."
Did any of us truly believe what we were singing? The answer, of course, is yes and no.
In contemplating the wonder of Greek tragedy, Nietzsche asked, "How much did this people have to suffer to be able to become so beautiful." In "We're Gonna Die," Lee reveals how much she had to go through to become so charmingly original.
'We're Gonna Die'
Where: The Actors' Gang at The Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd, Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.
Contact: (310) 825-2101 or http://www.cap.ucla.edu
Running time: 1 hour