Reviewed by JESSICA NEU
From the moment audiences walk into the Carnegie Stage to attend Off the WALL Productions‘ #UglyCry – Grief Hits Different, they are greeted with a uniquely immersive theater experience. A staff member politely approached me to explain that they were creating a playlist and asked what song I would like to have played at my funeral. I slightly panicked and found myself blurting out Hanson’s “With You in Your Dreams.” This answer was far less clever than my fellow audience members who chose Kansas’ “Carry on Wayward Son” and NSYNC’s “Bye, Bye, Bye.”
As we entered the stage area, we were greeted by #Uglycry creator and performer Katie Mack, who was intensely running on a treadmill. She introduced herself as “Mack,” but her running did not stop her from inviting us to approach the treadmill, where she engaged us in a welcoming and endearing conversation. We were encouraged to read the guidelines for how to interact with the show, which are projected on a screen positioned upstage from the treadmill.
As a group, we gauged our social media literacy on a scale from 1-10 and had to discuss our willingness to participate in karaoke during the show. After talking with Mack, we browsed the periphery of the theater to scan various QR codes that either helped us interact with the show or were linked to articles we could save on our phones to read after the show.
Once we take our seats and #UglyCry officially begins, we enter Mack’s world at the moment of a phone call. A dreaded phone call that she allows to ring five times because she knows what she is about to hear: that her ex-boyfriend Eric Anthamatten has died.
From that phone call, we traveled four months in time. To the point after a person’s death where the toasts have been given, the memories are shared, and you think that you have mentally accepted that a person is gone.
However, when Mack enters the T-Mobile store to recover old text messages that failed to upload to the cloud when she got a new phone, based on her reaction to being told that she needs to wait in line to see if they can solve her concerns, we get the sense that Mack still has some pent-up emotions surrounding Eric’s death. From T-Mobile, Mack returns to the treadmill, still positioned on stage. As she runs, she explains that she has been told the best way to channel grief is to do your every day and read your texts at night.
Reading your texts with the deceased cannot bring them back to life, but it is a way to relive or recreate conversations and bring the deceased into the present. Eric texted Mack minutes before he died, but now, because of the cloud failure, Mack no longer has these texts to read each night. So, she does what any good millennial does…she googles his name.
Having been an established author, philosopher, professor, and artist, Mack is greeted with Eric’s images, photos, writings, and stories.
As Mack begins her philosophical inquiry into examining the function of grief and how we interact with the dead and reconcile the past, she again invites the audience to interact with the show by scanning a QR code to survey how we feel about the internet. This interaction helps to personalize the show because, based on our response to the survey, we are prompted to consider how we interpret the major themes of #UglyCry.
When someone dies, is their potential truly lost? Does someone’s digital footprint become an anecdote to the tragedy of their physical departure from Earth? If one’s sense of self comes from interaction with others, does the internet contain the highest opportunity for self-actualization? Can we have a dialogue with the past?
Mack’s raw, heartfelt, vulnerable script helps us navigate these challenging questions, proving that grief is real, hard, and ongoing. #UglyCry interacts with the audience in a way that invites us to explore Mack’s rage, confusion, isolation, and fear of loving again in a relatable and honest way that feels authentic and never uncomfortable. She carefully balances the unbearable pain with moments of hope and tenderness that prove there is space in our hearts for both the past and the present.
In beautiful “full circle” moments, we come to understand the significance behind Mack asking who enjoys karaoke and the treadmill on stage. Still, she also reminds us of the important fact that grief is cumulative. Eric’s death is not Mack’s first experience with grief, as one of her dear friends died when they were in high school, but her immaturity led to using self-destructive coping skills instead of being present with the ongoing emotions of grief.
#UglyCry remains a highly interactive theater experience until the final scene, but each audience member’s personal relation to death and grief creates a unique individualized experience.
Exactly two weeks before seeing #UglyCry, I got “that” phone call. I knew it was coming, but hearing the words “your father passed away” still came as a shock. I was concerned that I would be too emotional to see this show. That I was still too close to my own personal grief to watch someone else navigate the same process that is still so confusing for me.
Mack’s enlightening and intelligent framing of grief is empowering instead of depressing. #UglyCry is a gift that reminds us that we can stay in a dialogue with the past. Grief is the love you give to someone that has nowhere to go, so we must put it somewhere. Mack notes that putting our grief into different places closes the gap between life and the afterlife. It is a stop for a snack at the gas station on the way to the white light. With that in mind, I will go ahead and scroll through some old photo albums and maybe make a salami sandwich (my Dad’s favorite) as a means of putting my grief in a positive place, for it is then that he will be here with me.
Prresented by Off the WALL Productions, Created and performed by Katie Mack, Directed by Susanne McDonald, Dramaturg: Janus Young, Technical Director: Juliette Louste
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Performances of #UGLY CRY – Grief Hits Different are at Carnegie Stage through October 14, 2023.
For tickets, visit: https://www.ticketor.com/carnegiestage/upcomingevents?PageId=166420