Uplifting Stories and Cathartic Songs About Death

by Gail M. Burns

Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die is described as “Part pop/indie rock cabaret, part storytelling—a life affirming show about one thing we all have in common.” That would be death. This is a show about the inevitability of death and dying. And according to Vogue it’s “goofily grim” and “wildly entertaining.”

And it’s coming to the Ancram Opera House for four performances August 4, 5, 11 & 12 at 8 pm. BerkshireOnStage.com sat down with director and Ancram Opera House co-owner, Jeff Mousseau, and the show’s sole performer, Maria-Christina Oliveras to find out how all those contradictory statements can be true

“There is a lightness to the material, because in very dark places there is often humor,” Mousseau explained, “when I’ve encountered death humor has been right there beside it as a release and coping mechanism.”

“Death is the universal, the only thing we all have in common,” Oliveras added.  “The act of sharing stories helps us connect. I mean, it sucks but we’ll get through it together. The show really explores the duality of life, the joys and the pains.”

“Young Jean Lee is speaking truth and exploring things at levels I am just beginning to investigate,” said Oliveras. “Jeff and I have talked about how this is me owning these stories. Any character is like that – when I step into a role that’s already been done it’s my version.  The audience will bring another layer of experience. The audience is my scene partner. Every performance is a dance, and I discover from the audience whether it is a foxtrot, a waltz, a tango – it will be different every night.”

The stories are juxtaposed, off-set, and complimented by the songs composed by Lee, Tim Simmonds, Mike Hanf, Nick Jenkins, and Benedict Kupstas. A live band composed of Claire Cuny, Patrick Robinson, and Monte Weber will accompany Oliveras on stage and a group of Ancram residents have been recruited to participate in a brief ‘dance break’ in the show.

Rehearsal 1

Maria-Christina Oliveras rehearses “We’re Gonna Die” with the band – Claire Cuny, Patrick Robinson and Monte Weber.

“While the dark humor acknowledges the finality of life, the indie pop music delivers a release. The music provides a catharsis. When we are singing together it is ritual act,” Oliveras explained “I believe in theatre as an ensemble work. I don’t consider this a one woman show because the band and audience are there with me.”

We’re Gonna Die fits In neatly with the ethos Mousseau and his husband Paul Ricciardi have established for the Opera House with their Real People, Real Stories series, as well as their schedule of cabaret performers and music infused drama.

“Paul and I jointly decided to do this show,” Mousseau explained. “It seemed right on so many different levels. I liked it on a philosophical level because death is always there in the back of our minds. It is a play with music without it being a musical. Storytelling is already part of our gestalt. We’re an intimate space so we can’t build huge sets. Our shows have to be about text, listening, and speaking. This performance does all that.”

“The energy in this house is so lovely and intimate,” Oliveras added. “It feels like a community coffee house.”

This is only the second or third production of We’re Gonna Die not to feature its creator, Young Jean Lee, billed as “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation” by The New York Times, and “one of the best experimental playwrights in America” by Time Out New York.

“As soon as I knew I would be directing this show I started asking around to find just the right performer, which is how I connected with Maria-Christina.” Mousseau said. After an initial meeting Oliveras fell in love with the material and was thrilled to make the trek to Columbia County for the adventure.

“This area is so beautiful! I am trying to get Paul and Jeff to adopt me so I can stay,” Oliveras enthused. She has been in the region several times before, starting as an apprentice at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (now the Berkshire Theatre Group) while a student in college. Her most recent visit was with David Byrne’s pre-New York try out of Here Lies Love at Mass MoCA in 2012.

A first generation American born in New York City to a Filipino mother and a Puerto Rican father Oliveras laughs that she defied convention to became an artist instead of a doctor or lawyer as many immigrant parents dream. She studied drama as an undergraduate at Yale and earned her MFA from the now defunct National Theatre Conservatory. Then she headed back to NYC to establish a successful career in theatre, film, and television.

“Theatre is my life-blood, when we’re all in the same room breathing together. I’ve done musicals, straight plays, Shakespeare, you name it,” Oliveras explained. “I’m a new plays person and I’ve been part of the development of a lot of new work. I just finished doing Amelie on Broadway after two and a half years of development. I worked on Here Lies Love for five years. I feel very, very blessed to be part of all these adventures and to work with so many really amazing artists.”

Mousseau feels confident that the title and subject matter won’t put audiences off. “We’ve been working to make sure people understand that it’s not a slitting your wrists kind of experience,” he said, “But I am sure our audiences will ‘get it’ because people automatically transfer the stories they hear into their own experience.”

written by Young Jean Lee
original music by Young Jean Lee, Tim Simmonds, Mike Hanf, Nick Jenkins, and Benedict Kupstas

directed by Jeffrey Mousseau

starring Maria-Christina Oliveras

August 4, 5, 11 & 12 at 8 pm

At the Ancram Opera House, 1330 County Route 7, Ancram NY

Tickets $25 available online at https://www.ancramoperahouse.org/tickets

For more information call (518) 329-0114 or visit http://www.ancramoperahouse.org

“Sly, weird and thoroughly winning…it doesn’t feel dirge-like at all. Its forthright acknowledgment that life can be a rough business is bracing, funny and, yes, consoling.”  – Charles Isherwood, NY Times

“In the enormously touching cabaret-style We’re Gonna Die…[Young Jean Lee] spins a 180 degrees to embrace convention, naked autobiography, and the unironic pop song.” – Helen Shaw, Time Out NY

“One of the most inexplicably pleasurable experiences of my theatergoing life….A goofily grim and oddly uplifting meditation by one of the most restlessly experimental—and wildly entertaining—writer-directors working in the theater today.”  – Adam Green, Vogue

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