Review: Seeking Purpose Among the Dead in ‘Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance’


To Virgil, the audience’s guide through Dael Orlandersmith’s slender, searching new solo play, “Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance,” there is something hellish in the sight of the miserable masses commuting to dreaded jobs that bring them nothing more than the ability to survive.

With the passion and cockiness of youth, Virgil at 20-something regards “these bitter, hard, close-to-dead people” with contempt, puzzlement and the certainty of escaping a similar fate.

Yet finding a purpose in life proves harder than it looks. By middle age, Virgil feels “lost in a dark wood,” much like the narrator of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy.” Orlandersmith’s Virgil, however, is very much of this earth: a Bronx native transplanted to Manhattan, who has adolescent memories of hanging out among the dead at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Performed by Orlandersmith at Rattlestick Theater in Greenwich Village, and directed by Neel Keller, her longtime collaborator, “Spiritus” is not shy about death or dying. It is, in fact, the rare play that will teach you something about embalming and other mortuary skills.

Virgil’s journey toward a beneficent existence starts with a family member’s funeral, continues through another relative’s hospice stay and then achieves fulfillment with our hero’s compassion-driven decision to look after the dead.

Whether that makes you lean in or recoil, any gruesomeness in “Spiritus” will depend on the vividness of your imagination. Takeshi Kata’s circle-inspired set and Nicholas Hussong’s crisp projections contribute elements of naturalism to the production, but Orlandersmith largely lets her language paint the images. (Understated costume design is by Kaye Voyce, aptly murky lighting by Mary Louise Geiger and sometimes surreal sound by Lindsay Jones.)

Orlandersmith’s writing is not at its most potent and incisive here; “Spiritus” doesn’t have the richness of her plays “The Gimmick,” “Yellowman” or “Until the Flood.” Yet I followed her raptly, curiously through this strange, surprising and somewhat too spare show. A meditation on living that seems also like a curveball response to loss, it is a mere hour long.

With her customary fluidity, Orlandersmith slips in and out of the characters around Virgil: Jimmy, a funeral director who ministers to Virgil’s family and takes Virgil under his wing; Peggy, a hospice nurse, about whose goodness the script gets slightly sappy; and Virgil’s father, one of the people Virgil regrets not having gotten to know better while there was still time.

In performance, the play’s poetic ending felt abrupt to me, but I’m not sure that it is. I suspect I got hung up on something that Virgil says shortly beforehand, about a dead infant. The lines come across as false sentiment — secondhand memories of the little girl as she was when she lived, presented as Virgil’s firsthand experience.

“Spiritus” stuck with me afterward, though, as did Virgil. A few nights later, seeing Kate Douglas’s very different play “The Apiary” at Second Stage, I couldn’t stop thinking about its thematic overlap with “Spiritus”: Both works are deeply concerned with death, caretaking and leading a meaningful life. If you’re building your own two-show day, they would make quite a pair.

Spiritus/Virgil’s Dance
Through March 9 at Rattlestick Theater, Manhattan; rattlestick.org. Running time: 1 hour.



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