How do you get people to see theater in a Bronx cemetery at three in the morning? Don’t tell them where they’re going.
That was the experience last weekend in And Then There Were None, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s island-set murder mystery from Roll The Bones Theatre Company. Directed by Taylor Myers, the performance was mostly promoted through word of mouth, its website offering the barest of information with a poem about 10 little soldier boys dying one by one, and sepia-hued portraits of the “soldiers.” Each one was an alum or current cast member of the Macbeth-based Sleep No More — Mallory Gracenin, William Popp, Tony Bordonaro, Jeff Lyon, Megh Dixon, Jonothon Lyons, Zach McNally, Emeri Fetzer, Taylor Myers, Paul Corning, Jr., and Myers himself.
This was also a reason for it being presented so late, I was told, as some of the cast came directly from performing at that immersive theater experience’s space in Chelsea. Our meet up time — one of the several you could select that ranged from $25 to $175 that “correspond[ed] to different experiences with different starting locations” — was 2:30 am in the Grand Hyatt by Grand Central. There at the hallucinatory sculpture of a giant white head by Jaume Plensa floating above a fountain we were instructed to keep an eye out for a man going on a trip. And when he finally appeared as if stepping out from some 1940s portal (our telegram “invitations” cleverly stated it was the exact day in 1943), we followed to Grand Central and road the 4 train all the way to the end of the line.
It was there that we stepped into Woodlawn Cemetery beneath a half-shrouded full moon. The 19th century burial ground is where the elite of 19th century New York went to build their dream eternal houses — mausoleums dot its 400 acres in facsimiles of Egyptian temples, French chapels, and hundreds of personalized monuments to legacies of wealth. While once cemeteries were a popular public space for city dwellers to escape and wander among the landscaped paths and view the stunning statuary, it’s only in recent years that they’re having a strong return to being a stage for public engagement. Which is why it was exciting to have such an experimental experience bring visitors to Woodlawn’s gates, even if they hadn’t a clue they’d end up with over 300,000 dead people.
Despite the mysterious meet up locations and ride up on the train with a stoic inspector Blore — played by an imposing William Popp — the production of And Then There Were None turned out to be a rather straight forward play staged in the cemetery’s 1930s Woolworth Chapel, with a bit of scrambling through rooms with the increasingly sleepy-eyed crowd to chase some action. I probably would have been able to engage with it more at 4 in the afternoon than 4 in the morning, yet the performers were totally gripped into the growing paranoia of their characters, as one by one they were killed and tried to figure out who was to blame.
As they are Sleep No More performers, a production told only through dance that is a bit of the opposite of Agatha Christie’s flow of dialogue, their strongest language was in movement. They could almost have presented And Then There Were None as a pantomime with the weight each performer gave to as simple an action as listening to a gramophone suddenly list out their litany of sins (the kick-off moment of suspicion when each of the 10 is revealed to have at least one skeleton in their closet). The verbal acting itself was a little less cohesive, with much of the emotional weight of the show being carried by Mallory Gracenin as Vera Elizabeth Claythorne, playing the former governess who may have let a child drown with a cool strength that gradually boiled into the final death that left none.
Making it through felt like a test of endurance as the production crept into daybreak. However, despite the fatigue, it was a worthy example of using cemetery space for performance. It’s a shame more of Woodlawn wasn’t utilized, as the Woolworth Chapel right by the entrance — beautiful as it is with marble floors and towering classical columns — barely touches on what gorgeous overlooked spaces are on the paths further afield. There was also no mention of where you were during or after the performance, and I would wager that for some people it might have been their first time in the Bronx burial ground. Hopefully, though, many of them will return, as even if And Then There Were None used a bit of misdirection to get people there, New York’s realms of the dead can be compelling art spaces for the living, while still respecting the departed.
And Then There Were None took place March 19–23 at Woodlawn Cemetery ( 517 East 233rd Street, Woodlawn, Bronx).
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