The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An unvarnished view of reality in two lively shows: Round House’s ‘We’re Gonna Die’ and Constellation’s ‘The Last Five Years’

Regina Aquino, center, stars as the Singer in “We’re Gonna Die” at Round House Theatre, joined by the members of the D.C.-based band the Chance Club. (Harold F. Burgess II/Round House Theatre)
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To get a spiritually bracing sense of your own mortality, you could meditate near a skull. You could read about the pandemic. Or, for a livelier and wittier memento mori, you could catch the Round House Theatre’s streaming production of “We’re Gonna Die,” the sneakily daring mash-up of storytelling and rock concert by playwright Young Jean Lee.

Effectively directed and choreographed by Paige Hernandez, the production features Regina Aquino as the Singer, an impish but unflinching everyday sage who shares stories about loss, loneliness and death. The humor-flecked tales erupt into songs that meld stoical wisdom with indie-rock tunes, arranged here by the members of the D.C.-based band the Chance Club, which also performs and provides musical direction.

Premiered in New York in 2011, “We’re Gonna Die” deploys its often peppy music (which Lee originally wrote with her band Future Wife) around anecdotes that are increasingly somber: a recluse’s self-loathing, cruelty in the schoolyard, a cancer death. Sustaining the cheer-in-bleakness high-wire act, in Hernandez’s staging, are the performances and design: Aquino’s poised Singer radiates openness and humor as a raconteur, and she hurls herself into songs with roadie-worthy physical energy.

Infusing the sound with punk, go-go and other musical colors, the Chance Club’s Manny Arciniega, Laura Van Duzer, Matthew Schleigh and Jason Wilson stand in the brightly colored alcoves of designer Paige Hathaway’s set, together but separate, in keeping with the show’s key theme of existential isolation.

“We’re Gonna Die” finds solace in acknowledging that we’re all grave-bound. In a culture that typically shies away from that truth, the approach is radical — hardly surprising from Lee, who’s known for provocative works (“Straight White Men,” etc.).

An unvarnished view of reality also emerges from “The Last Five Years,” Jason Robert Brown’s oft-produced 2001 musical about a romance’s arc. Streaming in a creditable if sometimes stiff-looking Constellation Theatre Company production (directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer, with musical direction by Marika Countouris), the two-hander emphasizes love’s impermanence and compatibility with loneliness.

The show’s structure bolsters that vision: The story of novelist Jamie (Alex Stone) unfurls forward and that of actress Cathy (Adelina Mitchell) backward, with the trajectories intersecting in just a single scene.

Moving around A.J. Guban’s abstract set at the Source Theatre, where the show was live-streamed on June 12 with a six-piece band, Stone and Mitchell bring out the characters’ charms and flaws — Jamie’s self-indulgent reveling in success, Cathy’s faltering confidence and droll quips about summer stock. Mitchell overacts in the heartbreak-drenched opener but then hits her stride, and both actors are fine singers.

The performances add poignancy to an emblematic image: Jamie and Cathy, backs to each other, ostensibly together but actually alone. As are we all.

We’re Gonna Die, by Young Jean Lee. Directed and choreographed by Paige Hernandez; costume design, Ivania Stack; lighting, Harold F. Burgess II; sound, Matthew M. Nielson; props master, Kasey Hendricks; director of photography, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh. One hour. Tickets: $30. On demand through July 11. roundhousetheatre.org.

The Last Five Years, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer; choreography, Tony Thomas; lighting design, A.J. Guban; costumes, Frank Labovitz; sound, Gordon Nimmo-Smith; props, Pamela Weiner; video production and editing, Blue Land Media. 90 minutes. Tickets: $20. On demand through July 11. constellationtheatre.org.

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