Midnight in the graveyard of newly dead people

Local theater troupe uses Minneapolis’ Lakewood Cemetery as the backdrop for the storied afterlife, and manage to evade horror genre kitsch.

by Sara Nicole Miller

Tell someone there’s a theatrical performance being held at twilight in Minneapolis’ most lavish gothic cemetery, and certain questions are bound to surface. Is it macabre? Is it grotesque? Does it stir jilted memories of kitschy gore and ghoulish horror? Are zombies involved?

City Ceased

WHEN: Through Sept. 30, Thursday through Sunday, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Lakewood Cemetery, 3600 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis

Apparently, none of that lore is necessary for putting on a show in a graveyard. At least, not in the case of “City Ceased,” a collaborative performance created by a handful of local actors and musicians. Led by University alumnus Kristopher Lencowski, the troupe uses the crisp, eerily pristine public garden space of Minneapolis’ Lakewood Cemetery to map out an endearing portrait of that pie-in-the-sky we go to when we die.

In “City Ceased,” the group uses one woman’s (Abby DeSanto) initiation into the realm of the afterlife as a winding, lofty allegory for our mortal metamorphoses – from her arrival at the gates, to a visit to the humane society for dead pets, to a reunion with an old friend. The scenes of the play, stretched out over the better half of the cemetery, detail a post mortem initiation into love, loss and acceptance of struggle.

But if the vast landscaping and stone obelisks are any geographic indication of the play’s proclivity toward the abstract and the ethereal, then consider the audience as a group of roaming cemetery bandits along for the theatrical death ride.

And because of the play’s mosaic of locales scattered around the graveyard, the group’s creative process – and the subsequent mise en scène of the performance – is somewhat varied and nonlinear.

“It was kind of a mismatch. Some scenes were scripted out. Some were typical theater and some were physically based,” explained Lencowski.

The audience begins their experience in the blush of the sun setting over Lake Calhoun. Led by two lantern-carrying ushers dressed in black, the playgoers walk down the elegant stone steps, past the golden-domed mausoleum and onto an outdoor corridor surrounding a gargantuan reflecting pool.

An accordion player (Steve Horstmann), a percussionist (Beth Varela), and guitarist (Matt Rein) greet the crowd as one character – a new arrival, recently deceased – dives into the pool and is greeted by the afterlife’s welcoming committee (Kris Lencowski and Amy Schweickhardt), a duo of manic, overly talkative bureaucrats intent on acculturating the new arrival.

In one scene, two afterlife residents climb onto the knotted limbs of a tree and discover a hole upon which they can view snippets from the world of the living. Other scenes are more abstract. The audience only captures glimpses of their bodies through the trees as they sing and squeal and reminisce about the loved ones they left behind. One woman dances lakeside with a man’s coat to a Django Reinhardt jazz tune blowing in the wind, another (actually the same woman) swings in a tree.

In “Ritual of Remembrance,” set underneath a lakeside corkscrew willow tree, the cast of four dances and rhapsodizes around a bonfire of candles, recalling their loved ones in the form of monologues like, “Every day, I miss your kisses.”

Although “City Ceased” works well as a catalogue of meditations on the sentimentality of death, it might be the sheer abstraction and montage nature of the performance that makes it incomplete. And, at the end of the night, it’s still not a satanic nocturnal romp, which might disappoint some. But its often clever and heart-warming insight into human life and death is what makes it worth seeing.

And for those with an appetite for muddle and mayhem, don’t forget that it still takes place in the bowels of a cemetery. Anything could happen when a quartet of living-dead actors, thousands of tombstones and a cricket symphony go bump in the night and live to sing about it.