How To Disappear Completely: Illuminating Death & Life

An edited version of this review appeared in Apt613.

How to Disappear Completely is a modern opus, anecdotal in its parts and unflinchingly truthful in its whole. It opens to a pitch-black stage as lighting designer Itai Erdal pulls back a curtain to reveal a film of his mother being interviewed on a beach in Israel.

Erdal’s one man performance links storytelling to film and to lighting technology in this piece that kicked off when he received a 2001 phone call informing him of his mother terminal diagnosis. Erdal immediately rushed home to Israel to be by her side. A Canadian film school graduate, he ended up documenting her remaining months and her death, all with her permission. In fact, it was mostly his mother Mery’s idea: she even offered an alternate title “Towards my Mother’s Death,” a heading, we are told, that works much better in Hebrew.

Having planned to become a filmmaker, Erdal diverted instead to a career in theater lighting, winning awards and mastering the most transitory effect of any live show. The hours of video were meant to become a film however a lack of financing and controversial content led to him cobbling what remained years later in to a theatrical work.

How to disappear

Did I mention the rave scene? Itai Erdal in action.

How to Disappear Completely goes well beyond documenting his mother’s final months. It covers a wealth of subject matter and characters, relationship dynamics and even a lighting design tutorial. Erdal runs, via a phone app, the lights throughout the performance, walking through various tools—the all-mighty shin buster—and techniques of his craft. At the outset, he explains how an actor framed by a square spotlight signifies an important reveal. He then tells of us his mother’s terminal lung cancer.

The footage is honest, touching and raw. Erdal provides simultaneous translation for much of the dialogue in Hebrew—a task that both connects and distances him from the content. His mother lounging on the beach, astoundingly, clutching a cigarette, while interviewed by Itai or his sister Ayana. Mery is vibrant, responding with wit and sarcasm to probing questions about the disease in its early days as being flu-like. When pressed about what it “feels” like she drops candidly impressive insights: telling the camera one shouldn’t feel their body: “The definition of being sick is when you feel your body”. Later in incredibly moving footage, her husband leans in to kiss her bald head as he shaves it.

More than a performance about death, though, How to Disappear Completely is about life, the relationships and choices we make. Despite an overtly morbid premise, it is in its entirety genuinely funny and even joyful.

Going beyond the disease, we connect to Erdal’s family and friends. Recollections of a trip to Vanuatu where he and best friend Emir swim with a giant manatee to comical effect. The dynamics and challenges that bond him so tightly to his sister Ayana. His desire to start his own family. And, importantly, he engages us to Mery in life: her talkative, welcoming personality, her marital failures and successes, her late in life education, her career as a professor of Latin American literature, her friendship with his own friends.

Throughout the 60 minutes, the weighty material of death, though present, is significantly lightened as Erdal weaves stories of sibling rivalry, friendship, and the rave culture of the early 90s. Engaging directly with the audience, challenging them to stump him in naming capital cities, and of course, there are the lessons in lighting. Yet still we travel through Mery’s decline and his own personal dilemma as her death draws closer and the devastating cancer takes hold of her brain.

There is a contrasted irony between his craft, with the creation of transient lighting effects at the heart of this documentary performance that uses light to tell this story of a transient life. The effect is made more powerful by remaining unstated yet strikingly present.

How to Disappear Completely is a rare treat, a one-of-kind performance that merits the many accolades it has won. So, see it for its empathetic and frank storytelling and, by the way, it has some great lighting too.

How to Disappear Completely is at the Arts Court Theatre 14-19 February Thursday 7PM Friday at 9pm and Saturday at 1pm, with a talkback following the afternoon performance. Tickets are available online.

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