What’s left of you after you die? One common thought is that our spirits continue to live on in the memories of those we leave behind. But, of course, it’s not that simple; life isn’t that simple, and neither is death. Your life, once lost, un-entwines itself from those you shared it with, slowly unspooling, loose threads dropping and blowing away. Such is the case in E3W Productions’ latest, Bitter at the End, as you watch Grace’s life, now snuffed out, fraying amongst the memories of her family, gradually, inevitably, becoming lost. You are invited to Grace’s wake, to witness the remains of her life as it scatters, to watch helplessly as the true finality of her existence is displayed. True to its title, Bitter at the End is a play about death, but death is only the beginning.
Bitter at the End, E3W’s sophomore production, takes the themes of loss and death found in their first show, In Another Room, and transport them from the supernatural to a stark reality. A piece in four chapters, you arrive at Grace’s wake and shift with discomfort as her fractured family squabbles and grieves angrily at her loss. The instant sensation that we, as guests, are desperately out of place, almost voyeurs, instills the wake with an awkward tension that only serves to sharpen the pain of Grace’s sudden passing, and the ripple effect it has caused amongst her loved ones. But the wake is merely the set up for what happens after, what’s literally after death. You are abruptly shifted from the wake into an increasingly dark journey that continues for the remainder of the play. Grace is gone, not yet forgotten, though perhaps that is not a blessing. Grace stands, turning and turning as memories swirl around but never touch her, a brief contact with the rest of the living. Eye contact from Grace’s family comes sudden and steady to participants. It’s uncomfortable. It should be. You’re witnessing the sorrow, rage, confusion, the intimacy of death. You’re connected to Grace, yet completely outside her family. You shouldn’t be here, but here you are.
The play truly begins to show its emotional depth in its latter half; guests are splintered off to experience Grace’s loss in extremely intimate settings with her loved ones. Here the excellent casting and direction from Austin Keeling, Aaron Keeling, and Natalie Jones is readily apparent. Visceral, moving performances from Skip Pipo, Maria Olsen, Fred Cross, Joy Monroe, Nerea Duhart, Terra Strong, and the truly unmatchable Dan Dorff pepper this section, fully immersing participants and highlighting the individual motivations of their characters. In a clever turn, each actor represents one of the Seven Deadly Sins, fueled and made flesh by grief. The cast is anchored by a landmark performance from Kerry Weider who, as Grace, portrays the bleakness of the afterlife so deftly that the audience is firmly gripped by her self-crushing sorrow for the life she can no longer live.
True to form, Bitter at the End features what has now become E3W’s trademark: an unrivaled use of space and set design to create mood and function as an integral part of the narrative. Patrick Blanchard returns as art director, creating spaces within spaces with an attention to detail and mood that is unrivaled in the Los Angeles immersive theatre scene. E3W’s vision is further supported by Monique Thomas and Justine Lang’s production design, with art department assistance and construction from Kelly and Dana Keeling. Stunning sounds fill these well-groomed spaces thanks once again to Daniel Tator and Jeremy Lamb, who provide sound design and another haunting original score to wash over Grace’s story. The strength of this behind-the-scenes team coupled with Austin Keeling, Aaron Keeling, and Natalie Jones’ brutal, beautiful storytelling ensures that Bitter at the End is the kind of experience that will hang in the thoughts of participants for a very long time.
Bitter at the End is as strong a sophomore showing that can be hoped for from a young immersive theater company; it’s the kind of piece that crawls around inside your skull, constantly reminding you of one artfully crafted scene after another. When Grace’s journey finally ends, there’s almost a sense of exhaustion, relief that you’re able to step out onto the street and inhale deeply, savoring a body that lives and breathes. In its rawest moments, Bitter at the End is just that: bitter. Death is not easy, nor simple, nor painless. Grace is gone, and you have experienced what’s left in her wake. Every spiteful, heartbreaking, angry, vengeful sensation, carried now with you into the chill night. Your eyes blink open as you taste the air, the slick streets of the city that you, the living, can still walk upon. Yes, Grace is gone, and you can leave her and her lonely spirits behind as the door slams shut, but she’ll never really leave you. You’re on the same journey now: your life, your death, and all the things after.