The universality of death doesn’t mean it gets much airtime in our cultural dialogue. So Green-Wood Cemetery commissioned a play about the afterlife as another way of starting a conversation about it.
The result is The Great American Casket Company, a new immersive theater production premiering tonight on the grounds of the cemetery.
“We scratch at the surface of mortality and what that is,” explains John Egan, 33, a member of Bread Arts Collective, the theater troupe that created the show. “What is to leave a legacy and be remembered.”
Sounds like heavy stuff, until you hear the premise: The Casket Company is taking the audience (limited to 75) on a tour of the cemetery as a sales pitch for afterlife services to guarantee a cushy oblivion. “There’s a little bit of symbolism,” Egan deadpans. “We’re not trying to be too profound or too heavy-handed; we’re trying to entertain.”
Sure, there have been other performances at Green-Wood. Last June, visitors were transported into “Dark Wonderland,” which turned the grounds into the world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice. But “The Great American Casket Company” takes its cues from its “stage.”
“We essentially went into Green-Wood and used it as our inspiration to create an entirely original piece for the cemetery,” Egan explains. “We just wanted to let it tell us what to make there.”
And death is not all there is to it. Though established as a cemetery in 1838, Green-Wood’s distinctive geography and expansive green space once made it the country’s second most popular tourist attraction and inspired the creation of Central Park.
“It was a place where people went to picnic,” he says. “Oddly enough, people used to throw parties in their own mausoleums.”
Just as there’s more to Green-Wood than graves, the show uses death as a jumping-off point to explore what it means to live a good life, and if you’ve done that part right, what happens after you’re gone.
“The Great American Casket Company” begins at the soaring gothic entrance gate on 25th Street and Fifth Avenue — “you feel like you’re walking into ‘Lord of the Rings,’” says Egan — where visitors become part of a roving production that incorporates some of the cemetery’s most famous landmarks, as well as some puppetry and live music.
After each show, the audience is invited to stay for a reception to reflect with the cast, with music and refreshments by Brooklyn’s alternative event planners Modern Rebel & Co.
“Like the cemetery, there are so many interesting layers of sadness and celebration and remembrance and mourning [to death],” Egan says. “We’re just trying to kick up the dust a little bit on some of that stuff.”
The Great American Casket Company
Thursdays-Sundays, 7 p.m.
Green-Wood Cemetery, 500 25th St., Brooklyn