TBA:13: Itai Erdal lights and unlights the way

Itai Erdal's performance piece "How to Disappear Completely" is about dying...or is it living?

By ANDREA STOLOWITZ

Life in its most literal sense is about appearing (being born) and disappearing (dying). Dying, that liminal time when one is in the process of “disappearing completely,” has come more and more into the public consciousness as social media and video has made the process immediate and widely accessible. The result has been to peel away the layers and emotions surrounding dying, allowing us to see what has more traditionally been kept private and hidden.

Itai Erdal, who has created “How to Disappear Completely,” is a lighting designer. Light is used to make objects and people appear and disappear on stage. By adjusting the amount, quality, and type of light the designer can conceal and reveal not just the physical bodies on stage but also sculpt the emotional landscape.

Erdal uses this metaphor between how light works on stage and how one disappears when one dies to share the emotionally charged story of the death of his mother. We are taken through a beautifully sculpted narrative which starts with Erdal returning home to Jerusalem from his new home in Vancouver, Canada (where he was in film school), to be with his mother as she dies of lung cancer. Ever the documentarian, Erdal films those months, giving us interviews with his mother, stepfather, sister, and best friend.

Itai Erdal in "How to Disappear Completely"/Photo by Tomas Vallardes courtesy of PICA

Itai Erdal in “How to Disappear Completely”/Photo by Tomas Vallardes courtesy of PICA

His intention to turn this footage into a film about his mother’s passing never materialized, however, but this show did. The multi-media theater piece uses elements of lighting design, which Erdal patiently explains and demonstrates; pieces of the film he made are projected on an upstage screen; and Erdal, the actor, is on hand to explore the story, which it turns out is not only “how to disappear” but actually how to live.

Erdal is haunted by more than a few things about living that are at times comic and at times harrowing. The most prominent of these hauntings is that his mother believed that the completion of self, the point of life if you will, is to create new life. In short to get married and have children. And the fact that he has done neither pains Erdal, at least in the theater piece.

It is an interesting focus because the play could very easily be a sophisticated argument for death with dignity or about the processes of grief, loss, and dying—but it is not. It is about how one should live according to Erdal’s mother, a woman from a family in which every generation for the past five generations was born in a different country. This particularly Jewish history, one in which a diaspora forced identity through self and family and not through country and nationality, is prominent here and impossible to get around. Life is for the continuation of life, and unless Erdal joins this circle, his mother will completely disappear. In passing on what he has from her, her spirit, her ideas, her laughter to his children, he keeps a piece of her present.

The final moments of the piece are emotionally wrenching. Erdal narrates the story of his sister’s children asking her if she will die when they have children. She assures them that she will not, that she will be there to help them raise their own children and that they will all be together. We see a photo of the smiling children projected on the screen.

Erdal stands in front of it and continues the story. He relates how each child then declares that they have each actually just had a child. And for a moment we are all there with them, in this joy, in this life, in this safety of family and mother and continuation. And it is with this exquisite fantasy moment of complete fulfillment and great longing that we end the show.

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