Theaters here in DC and all over the country have taken heroic measures to keep producing work during the pandemic. The precautions utilized by Round House for We’re Gonna Die, a play with music, are recounted in star Regina Aquino’s interview with Embracing Arlington Arts. Everyone in the rehearsal space was fully vaccinated. They wore masks and were tested every other day. There was a small, invited audience during the filming, also masked, tested, and socially distanced. When necessary, Aquino used a face protector. It is great to see spectators in live theater once again.
Author Young Jean Lee has a reputation as an original and provocative playwright. With the 2018 production of Straight White Men she became the first Asian American woman to have a play on Broadway. We’re Gonna Die has been produced at Lincoln Center, and off-Broadway at Second Stage. In 2015, in London’s Southbank Centre, David Byrne was the lead singer while Lee performed the monologues.
It is the story of a girl who, due to shocking events in her own life (and some that are not so shocking), realizes that essentially anything could happen to anyone. Round House understandably chose We’re Gonna Die after the harrowing events of the last year. In many ways it is a noble effort; the goal is to help us to accept the impermanent nature of life and find comfort in small moments of healing or joy. Although well-intentioned, the production is something of a misfire.
Our heroine, known only as the Singer, begins by describing Uncle John, whom everyone in her family “felt really bad for” but were repulsed by because he was so isolated, probably a virgin, and smelled bad. The Singer decides one night to sneak into his room, crawl under his bed, and “surprise” him by grabbing his feet. Instead, hiding under the bed, she hears him berating himself and crying. From this episode she learns that everyone, even “weird” Uncle John, has a public and private face.
Some of the “traumas” narrated by the Singer don’t quite rise to that level. Getting dumped by a boyfriend can be, but not necessarily. Finding a gray hair—I don’t think so. Getting rejected as a child by other children, perhaps. The idea of connecting with others to recover from damage is a time-honored solution to many types of pain. But the application is, in this case, somewhat disconcerting.
Morality plays in the Middle Ages had an instructive function: the late-15th-century Everyman, for example, is meant to instill lessons about how to live a Christian life. And part of the problem is that the Singer believes she has the credibility to teach us how to rectify our suffering. But her experience seems somewhat limited, her approach to trauma unduly self-absorbed. And drama that is didactic is sometimes, as here, unsuccessful theatrically.
Because of the pandemic, many theaters have perforce had to rely on monologues. But a monologue is not necessarily a play. What is needed is an actual, preferably current, dramatic situation, not a series of reminiscences picked at random from one’s life. Somehow this presentation has missed the tone necessary to make the Singer’s revelations compelling. The material is thin and the lack of depth makes it difficult to give the piece moral authority as a valid exploration of a serious issue—perhaps the most serious issue of all.
Stylistically, We’re Gonna Die is a kind of “shock” theater: full of movement and intensity, yet not graced with levels of meaning. But the production fails to emphasize these extreme elements, which might effectively disguise the slender nature of the plot.
Regina Aquino is talented and charming in her “rock star” persona. Choreography, set design, costumes, and lighting, as to be expected with Round House, are excellent. Director and Choreographer Paige Hernandez writes:
We’re really looking to be DC-centric, as well as culturally specific. Our lead performer, Regina Aquino, is of Filipina heritage, so it was very important to me that we highlight that, and that’s something that you’ll see throughout the design. And I wanted to capture that musically, with recognizable references that anybody of Filipino culture would know, through a guitar riff or in a solo, as our inside wink to them. And we have this very multicultural ensemble, so I wanted everyone’s identity to be present in that same way. And then, DC is huge for its punk scene, and go-go, and hip-hop, and indie rock—it’s just a great musical city.
Again, a noble effort. But we are all grieving. And we are living in an Orwellian world. After over 600,000 deaths, from a disease that some disavowed as they were dying, we could all benefit from collective acknowledgment of our confusion and loss. Until the change in administration, it felt like we were on our own. The theater community, including Round House, has risen to the occasion and attempted to provide solutions. We’re Gonna Die, at least in this incarnation, is not one of them.
Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes, with no intermission.
EXTENDED: Round House Theatre’s production of We’re Gonna Die is available for on-demand streaming through July 25 2021. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased by calling 240.644.1100 or ordering online.
WE’RE GONNA DIE
By Young Jean Lee
Directed and Choreographed by Paige Hernandez
Scenic Designer: PAIGE HATHAWAY
Costume Designer: IVANIA STACK
Lighting Designer: HAROLD F. BURGESS II
Sound Design: MATTHEW M. NIELSON
Props Master: KASEY HENDRICKS
Dramaturg: NAYSAN MOJGANI
Production Stage Manager: CHE WERNSMAN
Director of Photography: MABOUD EBRAHIMZADEH
Music Direction/Arrangements: MANNY ARCINIEGA, LAURA VAN DUZER, MATTHEW SCHLEIGH, JASON WILSON
Singer: REGINA AQUINO
Keyboard/Vocals: LAURA VAN DUZER
Guitar/Vocals: MATTHEW SCHLEIGH
Bass/Vocals: JASON WILSON
Drums/Vocals: MANNY ARCINIEGA
Production Assistant: NIEW BHARYAGUNTRA
Camera Operators: JOHN GROVE, NATE PESCE
Location Audio: MATTHEW M. NIELSON
Audio Engineer: ADAM W. JOHNSON
Audio Technicians: ADAM W. JOHNSON, GORDON NIMMO-SMITH
Light Board Programmer: JONATHAN MAAG
Electricians: HAILEY LAROE, ELLIOT PETERSON
Editor: MABOUD EBRAHIMZADEH
Sound Editing & Mix: MATTHEW M. NIELSON