“You know, I’ve never seen her laugh,” he said, pointing to the veiled woman in black. “Shall we try?”
The woman raises her black shroud with gloved hands, revealing a pale face beneath; her eyes are sunken and dark, as if she’s seen a lifetime of sorrow. She raises her eyebrows at us deliberately, as if daring us to try. “Go ahead…” she challenges.
The comedian takes first crack, of course, and we all look at the woman, trying to read her. The corner of her mouth twitches just slightly, a quick flash of emotion not giving us too much credit. I think we’ve made progress, but not much.
After the group tries a couple of real stinkers that fall flat, I tell her a joke that I love, a joke that a dad would tell his children followed by an overwhelming chorus of groans. The group tenses, waiting with baited breath to see if the newest joke lands. The silence hangs in the air until the severe woman in black starts smiling, bigger and bigger, suddenly piercing the silence with her crystal clear laugh, just like a bell. We all join in her joy, the heaviness of the room finally lifting.
Shinbone Theatre Company’s Afterlife Anonymous ushers in up to twelve participants as newly-deceased ghosts looking to give up their haunting addiction and ties to the living world in favor of transcendence. Set up like a typical AA meeting complete with coffee and candy, Afterlife Anonymous lets guests participate however much, or little, as they choose. The actors sit amongst the guests in a circle of openness and vulnerability, truly placing everyone on even footing. There is a loose narrative throughout the course of the 45-minute meeting, and the group is split up for one or two different exercises, but guests only have the ability to affect several small side-plots rather than any large storylines. For guests who are shy about stepping into character, The Ferryman who helms the onboarding process hands out brochures for new members of Afterlife Anonymous, each containing a cheeky blurb about how that guest died, sure to garner some chuckles during introductions. It is not explicitly said, but guests who want to put on their acting hats can definitely make up their own tragic backstories as they wish.
There have been several immersive experiences recently that place the audience in the role of ghosts. While Give Up the Ghost asks difficult questions, and The Shadow Space acts as a murder-mystery, Afterlife Anonymous takes a more lighthearted approach and sees participants appreciating the little things in life and encourages the acceptance of change. In a stream-of-consciousness exercise, guests face a partner and recount the things that brought them joy in life. In this moment, I was reminded of the tiniest things to be grateful for when the experience ended; these things that are most precious to us don’t go away, they stay with us in our memories to forever cherish. By taking on the topic of death in a mostly comedic way, Afterlife Anonymous attempts to ease the fear that comes with change – in this case, transitioning from living to dead, as well as from a ghost in purgatory to moving on to the next plane of existence.
Designed to mimic an AA meeting, Afterlife Anonymous keeps the sets, props, and lighting design relatively simple. Guests sit in folding chairs while the neon lights buzz above them, only a small table with the aforementioned coffee and candy in the corner acting as the set. There are a few dramatic supernatural moments during which the lighting and sound enhance the scene; either providing an intense and dark otherworldly presence or a soothing respite from purgatory in shades of white. The simplicity of the setting helps guests be present in the intimate moments of the meeting and hone in on the story Afterlife Anonymous is trying to tell.
The cast of Afterlife Anonymous is full of energetic and talented performers who all play off each other and the audience very well. Brady Richards shines as Milton, the cheerful leader of the meeting who struggles to keep things under control. Richards is delightfully peppy and sets the carefree tone of the experience perfectly. Dana Benedict as the stony Penelope must be commended for keeping a straight face throughout the proceedings, especially when being persuaded to laugh at terrible jokes. Benedict is so subtle in her stoicism that it becomes a genuine relief when she begins to lighten up a bit, brightening the room. Alex Weber and Zippy Cardozo’s bickering couple from the 1950s adds a touch of gravity to the meeting, as Cardozo in particular emotionally recounts what brings her there. Alex Elliott’s Sarah acts as a perfect stand-in for the audience, asking all the questions we didn’t know we had about the world that creators Leland Frankel and Jonny Perl have built. Her character arc is a true journey, from denial to anger to acceptance. The last character attending Afterlife Anonymous is comedian Roberto, played by John Ryan Benavides. It is difficult to not fall in love with Roberto, as Benavides portrays him and his idiosyncrasies with deadpan humor and chaotic energy. The talented cast keeps the show pushing forward, but knows when to let the audience have their moments to play.
Afterlife Anonymous is a cute and intimate production that excels in reminding guests of the joys in their life. By keeping the story contained and forgoing elaborate sets, creators Frankel and Perl make sure that the focus is appropriately on the acting and the message conveyed. Even without strong audience agency, the set-up allows for plenty of interaction between guests and actors, and provides a playful and loving look at the afterlife. Maybe being a ghost isn’t so bad after all.
Afterlife Anonymous has concluded its run. Find more information on Shinbone Theatre Company on their website, Facebook and Instagram. Check out our Event Guide for more immersive entertainment throughout the year.