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Mortality play 

Andy Kirshner still isn't sure how to categorize his dazzling multimedia spectacle, The Museum of Life and Death. "If I call it music theater, everyone thinks it's Cats. If I call it opera, it sounds like big people in breastplates with horns on their heads. If I call it performance art, people think it'll be hard to understand or confrontational." He finally settles upon "interdisciplinary theater work," although he still sounds less than satisfied.

Formally trained as a composer, Kirshner studied at the University of Michigan in the '90s, finally settling in to teach in both the school of art and design and the school of music. This eclectic background informs his new work, The Museum of Life and Death. The piece melds together such varied disciplines as theater, video, computer animation, dance, mime, singing and composition.

It's loosely based on the 15th century morality play Everyman, Kirshner explains: "The original play posed the question, 'What can save Everyman from death?' But the answer given is a theological one, which didn't satisfy me. ... I wanted to make a piece that would explore how death fits into American culture."

The resulting conceit sounds almost like the setup for a punch line: What do you get when you cross a 15th-century morality play with a futuristic race of androids? Much like the play it's built upon, the protagonist is a stand-in for all humanity in that he must reckon with death. Kirshner sets the story far in the future, where robots people a perfect world, where "happiness is entirely a matter of downloading the right data."

Thus the necessity for the museum. "It is only through an understanding of his primitive human heritage that a 'post-human' super-person can come to grips with his own true nature."

If this all seems like a long detour to get to everyday mortality, Kirshner is eager to explain the remove. "It's not just a lugubrious slog to the grave," the composer says. "There's a certain amount of satire and irreverence in it, and also the crazy juxtapositions of time and place, the future, the historical medieval world and our own 21st century postindustrial world, with all these quirky anachronisms. ... You can use science fiction as a vehicle for satire, as a vehicle for deeper exploration."

Though the play does use humor, it also offers lyrical passages combining Kirshner's rich and haunting score — composed for a jazz quintet and a medieval chorus — with evocative lighting and visuals. Though straight dance productions must often fight against the idea that audiences may not "get it," Museum makes use of the stylized mime of player Mark Anderson to telegraph emotion more clearly while using poetic body language. Backed up by three projection screens and the silhouettes of dancers behind them, Kirshner is able to create a powerful mood. When the title character sings, "O death, you came when I had you least in mind," it's a poignant lament.

Audiences may note that such multimedia shows are an emerging trend in our area, and Museum comes on the heels of a similar effort, the Peter Sparling Dance Company's Peninsula. Is the stage adopting multimedia in a bid to remain relevant to today's media-saturated culture? Kirshner says no, but allows that reaching an audience with straight performance is a challenge.

"A lot of theater artists are aware of the power of mediated images. The minute you put something up on a video screen when you have live actors, people stop looking at the actors. I try to use video like it's another character."


The Museum of Life and Death runs 8 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16, through Saturday, Feb. 18, and 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Duderstadt Center, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd., Ann Arbor. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. Send an e-mail with your name, show date and the number of tickets you would like to: Tickets are also available at the door on a first-come-first-served basis.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to or call

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