Much of Erin Bregman’s play “A Bid to Save the World” takes place in a future where death is a thing of the past. That’s a provocative idea, and even an untrained philosopher will start asking questions about how this imagined world works. What about overpopulation? Do injuries miraculously heal, if they exist at all? Do people still age, their bodies becoming weaker, and just carry on in a feeble state?
But the play, which is one of three full-length works selected for the Source Festival, doesn’t deal with the logistics of a deathless society, vexing though they are. “A Bid to Save the World” is instead a lyrical meditation on loss using loosely interwoven stories, songs, incantations and poetry, and the result is a drama that is equal parts moving and confounding.
In the future, one teenager with a questionable grasp of history thinks that in the days of yore, there were only three ways to go: “Drowning, cancer, and exploding and stuff.” Adam (Rafael Sebastian) and his best friend, Evelyn (Natasha Gallop), want to bring death back, as if it’s an extinct bird that deserves another chance. But they don’t consider the emotional implications of their experiment. When Adam asks Evelyn whether she would be sad if he died, she hardly understands the question; finality is a foreign entity.
The teens’ foil is a girl in the present day (played by Anna Lynch) whose brother has just died. Not only is death a reality, but it is her only reality. She’s angry and inconsolable, and in her fury, she spits out the not-uncommon refrain of “Nobody should ever die ever again.”
Another narrative feels out of place, both stylistically and thematically, as it deals with people in search of world peace. The characters narrate their own stories in the third person as they act them out. It seems gimmicky at first, although it turns out to have a purpose. It’s a story being told to Death herself (Kimberlee Wolfson), a woman who is not particularly fond of her job, especially because it involves eating truckloads of oranges.
Throughout the play, a chorus comes and goes, singing songs that range from gospel to catchy work chants, and all are delivered beautifully by the cast without the help of instruments. These interludes, with musical direction by Jon Jon Johnson, and the more abstract scenes of the mourning sister picking up petals and reciting incantations often deliver deeper poignancy than the stories themselves.
That may be in part due to some stalled attempts at humor. While doing research at a library, Adam and Evelyn select cards that create audiovisual presentations. One display, conveyed by a quartet of actors, lists all the ways to die, from choking to emphysema and bladder infections to heartbreak. While two people recite causes of death, the two others mime them in occasionally cheeky ways. It’s all somewhat vaudevillian, though not in an especially humorous way.
It doesn’t all work, but “A Bid to Save the World” is an ambitious project with its many moving parts and interconnected narratives. The production calls to mind “Healing Wars,” the dance-theater piece by Liz Lerman, about the tolls of combat, at Arena Stage. Both shows put to use an arsenal of eclectic methods to get at the heart of a broad concept. “A Bid” doesn’t have the clarity of that production, but neither does it have the resources.
Written by Erin Bregman; directed by Elena Velasco; musical direction by Jon Jon Johnson. 90 minutes. $10-$20. Through Friday at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. Visit www.sourcefestival.org
or call 202-315-1305.