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A date with death.

Apologies to Tony Kushner, but there are no angels in America - except perhaps those flown by Foy. This country was founded by merchants, not mystics, and the paucity of myth is nowhere more acutely felt than in our bewildered flounderings when death makes its entrance. Hermes will no longer lead us across the river Styx, nor will Aribus bring us before Osiris's court to place our souls in the balance against Truth. St. Peter is said to be squaring accounts at the pearly gates, but most of us would sooner expect to see the Easter Bunny here on earth.

Our culture places its faith in science and technology, not in the enigmatic truth of myth. "What we value most highly is accuracy, predictability and rational interpretation," writes Dr. Frank Gonzalez-Crussi in his most recent collection of essays, Day of the Dead and Other Mortal Reflections. "Perhaps here lies the greatest danger, that our thirst for myth is left unassuaged. Perhaps we hurt in our souls - if I may be forgiven the use of this archaic word - from chronic myth-symbol deprivation, just as the seafaring men of the past hurt in their bones from chronic deprivation of Vitamin C." We need enigmas, he writes, "like daily sustenance."

"Gonzalez-Crussi's work feeds you," says Sharon Evans, artistic director of Chicago's Live Bait Theatre, where Memento Mori, an original adaptation of Gonzalez-Crussi's writings, runs through Feb. 19. "It gives you emotional nurturance."

Mexican-born Gonzalez-Crussi is not only an eloquent medical essayist who taught himself to write by reading 18th-century French and English literature - but he is also the head of pathology at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where he oversees some 65 autopsies a year. In his books, which bear such evocative titles as Three Forms of Sudden Death and On the Nature of Things Erotic, he turns again and again to the body, its traumas, its longings and its ultimate demise.

The music of an autopsy

Gonzalez-Crussi's broad scholarship - he quotes, among others, Horace, Baudrillard, Cicero, Gogol, Cervantes and even Eva Peron with equal facility - is put to masterful use in service to a paradoxically corporeal lyricism. In a passage entitled "Moonlight Autopsy," Gonzalez-Crussi describes a BBC camera crew filming the autopsy of a nine-year-old boy who died of AIDS. The silvery glow from the lighting equipment is juxtaposed with "an oppressive, thick, almost palpable stillness, which serves as a background alternatively to the brief staccato of scissors or knives, then the low-toned adagio of the saw, and then the largo of the suction pipes. Moonlight sonata."

Evans discovered Gonzalez-Crussi's writing while holed up in the medical stacks during two years of research for her last piece, Freud, Dora and the Wolfman. What looked at first like "cute little books about death" turned out to hold rich, evocative and engrossing stories of medicine, myth and mortality. "His work captivates through extremes, from the most graphic to the most poetic," she enthuses. "It's the subtext of his life."

Gonzalez-Crussi's expertly orchestrated collisions between the graceful and the grotesque, the emotional and the clinical, and the sacred and the profane lend an air of magic realism to his writings. Evans and her army of collaborators cleverly theatricalize this sensibility. Early in Memento Mori, for example, a doctor, leaning over the splayed chest of a cadaver, watches a heart, intestine, airplane, old photograph and American flag fly up out of the cavity. Later, the head of a recently felled lumberjack rises out of an incision in his own abdomen, arguing with the pathologist about the cause of his death.

The design of the play exploits the sacred/profane dialectic. An enormous skull, which doubles as a projection screen, surveys the action from the rear wall of the theatre. A white stairway leads from the skull down to the stage, suggesting neck bones; an elaborate set of mechanical ribs, which can open like a blossom or close like a bear trap, line the playing area. Being inside the body is akin to being on consecrated land, Gonzalez-Crussi points out: "The interior of the human body is surely the epitome of the sacred, since it is never penetrated without fear, awe or passion."

Lost in the ocean of time

In contrast to this hallowed ground, a series of translucent curtains, reminiscent of a hospital intensive-care unit, divide the stage into regular, indistinguishable examining rooms, embodying "the epitome of profaneness, since in geometry all space has exactly the same value, and the figures that are traced in this space can be done and undone without the least compunction."

Bringing this visually and textually sophisticated work to the stage engendered its own set of collisions, as Evans marshaled her co-director Valery Olney, sculptor and designer Joel Klaff, installation artist Woody Haid, sonic artist David Blum, composer Eric Lane Barnes and filmmaker Ben Talbot into a heady collective. Rather than jobbing in this massive team to work on an already-existing script, Evans brought the artists together at the inception of the piece; each collaborator's contribution informs and influences every other's, in what Evans describes as an "ordered messy process, almost Cage-ean as it followed the flow of process wherever it would lead."

The resulting adaptation moves from gross over-articulation - the lumberjack's corpse is constructed entirely of felled trees - to almost pure abstraction. Each incision in the aforementioned moonlight autopsy, for example, is suggested by a simple red line projected above the actors. Following an arc toward simplification and distillation, the production itself goes gentle into that good night. "The ocean of time," Gonzalez-Crussi writes, "shall engulf us all, and by its repeated washings erase our traces until there is absolutely no mark of our existence - monumental memorials notwithstanding."

In a country where morticians routinely doll up our corpses to make them look a little less dead, pocketing part of the $9 billion Americans spend annually on funeral expenses, can Live Bait resuscitate our long-atrophied mythic sensibilities? "All we can do," says Olney, "is look at death without creating lies. That process is life-affirming."
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Title Annotation:myth and mortality in literature
Author:Hayford, Justin
Publication:American Theatre
Date:Feb 1, 1995
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