'A bit of a whirlwind': 'Death on the Half Shell' is two plays in one
The play Death on the Half Shell: Two Comic Tales on Death and the Absurdities of Life! is currently running at Trinity Street Playhouse. The show is a collection of two short one act plays, both comedic but serious looks at death; the two plays (Threes and Final Conversations) aren’t exactly related to one anther but they are of a piece.
“There's a lot of things that the cast and the director and I have done to connect the worlds even though they're two different stories,” says playwright Rita Anderson.
“Part one is the work sector, like the public sector part of our lives.It's called Threes and Threes is a comic spin on the urban legend [that] all actors die in threes. Three actors – former classmates from Juilliard whose careers took very different turns – meet up at the Advance Obituary Office after their 15 minutes of fame has faded,” Anderson explains. “And so part two is the private sector – you know, the home, the personal parts of our lives and it's called Final Conversations. And it explores a mother's wish to have one real conversation with her son before he's gone. One morning before school, Mother suddenly knows that Son has an hour to live, and with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, she attempts to get it right, using even absurd methods to reach him.”
Both plays are directed by Karen Jambon, and both feature actors Will Douglas and Melissa McKnight in prominent roles, though their characters have very different relationships in the two plays. In Threes, they’re the millennial and often adversarial employees of Advance Obituary Office, and in Final Conversations they’re mother and son.
“We rehearsed them separately for most of the rehearsal process,” Douglas says. “And then near the end, we started doing them to get both together in the same night. And that was the first time it was like, oh while these plays share such good DNA, they are very different energies. Like the energy that you have to bring to it as an actor are so disparate. So, yeah, that took a lot of getting used to.”
“It's been a little bit of a whirlwind wind in my brain to be honest,” McKnight adds. “To go from this adversarial, competitive, cutthroat L.A. office style relationship… to a mother who's consumed by desperation and love and confusion.”
Jambon says that directing the two one-acts simultaneously has also been a challenge, but a fun one due to the cast she’s assembled. “The cast is so incredible that they just – these two especially, having to go from one to the other – just jumped into it, hook line and sinker,” she says. “And, you know, I always say directing is just casting the right people and getting out of their way.”