Nancy Kenny’s Everybody Dies in December is a delightfully quirky solo drama that shows that coming into your own is a universal experience, no matter how unusual your circumstances may be.
Kenny plays Claire, a Québec woman whose family business is undertaking and funeral planning. Told through a succession of moments punctuated by Kenny’s excellent use of fixed point, Claire reflects on how her attitude towards her family business changed from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, and the isolation that comes with the territory of being “the girl with bodies in the basement.”
The majority of these moments take on the form of Claire making conversation, so to speak, with the bodies that she sterilizes, embalms, and dresses up for funerals. There’s a funny sort of Brechtian tension during these moments as Claire’s desire to connect with others manifests itself in a gentle yet jocular manner; it’s almost as if she’s a teacher trying to connect with a shy child instead of an undertaker telling a car accident victim that no one will notice his caved-in skull at the wake. Most moments, even those not directed at corpses (though most of them are) take the form of fixed point: when a performer directly addresses the audience, but instead of looking out into the darkness maintains eye contact with a single audience member for the entire moment. Combined with the realization that the nice lady is addressing you as if you’re a corpse, these moments are as unsettling as they are endearing (and there are a lot of fixed point moments, so there’s a fairly good chance you’ll get to be a corpse).
The storyline is not just about funerary affairs, although it certainly is educational on that front (did you know they sew the mouth closed?). Claire’s social isolation doesn’t stem just from being the girl from a family of morticians, but the lasting emotional damage caused by her father’s abandonment of her and her mother. This is already the second show I’ve seen at Fringe this year that includes parental abandonment as a theme, but like The Triangle this content is allowed to speak for itself rather than being shoved down the audience’s throat. It’s indirectly referenced through Claire’s problematic relationship with her on-again, off-again boyfriend Travis. Perhaps it’s a bit stereotypical that the character whose father ran off has trouble with relationships later on, but because Kenny has done such a fine job of constructing a psychologically complete character this aspect is logical and makes perfect sense for her, just as when this sort of thing happens in real life.
Another theme throughout the narrative Kenny weaves is that of accepting your position in your family, even though it may not be your first choice were you given the option. I didn’t grow up in a small town with an independent funeral home but it kind of makes sense that the kids from such a family might be bullied by their peers and wish they were born into another family – doesn’t every kid wish that at some point? Claire’s wrestling with the issue of whether or not she wants to continue in the family business and her ultimate choice (which you’ll have to see the show to find out) forms a beautiful climax in which she puts aside her anxieties and decides to start living life according to her own rules, which is something everyone can behind, funeral director or not.
The only thing that left me puzzled was the choice to make Claire Québecois*: it has no bearing on the story besides mentioning that the French term for an undertaker translates to “biter of death,” and as Kenny speaks in English for the entire show without an accent (save for a few throwaway references that remind us which province we’re supposed to be in) I’m not sure why this choice. It really doesn’t matter though (maybe there are more independently-run funeral homes in Québec?). If this is the biggest problem I could find with Everybody Dies in December, then that’s a very good sign indeed.
Everybody Dies in December
Created and Performed by Nancy Kenny
At Arts Court Theatre
(*it was later disclosed to the NOC that Kenny is, in fact, Acadian from New Brunswick hence the choice)