In the land of the dead

‘Cityceased’ uses landmark cemetery as backdrop

EAST HARRIET — Kristopher Lencowski said he is not particularly anxious or afraid. He doesn’t obsess over it. It doesn’t keep him up at night.

Death, that is. The End.

“I’m cool with death,” Lencowski said, and smiled.

Still, he’s been thinking quite a bit about death recently. His new play, “Cityceased,” takes place in a city of the dead, a place where souls — or whatever they are — show up after their mortal existence has fizzled out.

“Cityceased” follows several of the recently deceased after they arrive in the city of the dead. The city is not heaven or hell, he said, but a place where the dead linger as long as they are remembered on earth.

Their efforts to cope with a new existence apart from the living and to reconcile their feelings of loss are a murky mirror image of what happens back here on earth.

Appropriately, this play about transitions will be staged in one of the city’s grandest way stations between here and the hereafter, historic Lakewood Cemetery.

“People have created this spooky image around cemeteries,” he said. “… What we’re trying to do is take that scary part out of it.”

Lencowski was inspired, in part, by the Mexican Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. The holiday is a day of joy in remembering dead loved ones, not mourning.

“I kind of hope that’s something we can accomplish,” he said. “We can bring people closer to thinking about these things without having the fear.”

During “Cityceased,” the audience will follow actors through the 136-year-old cemetery as they move around landmarks like the lake and reflecting pools. Audience members will carry candles to illuminate the action.

Lencowski said it was a “tricky dance” incorporating elements of the cemetery into the play while remaining respectful of those buried there. They won’t use tombstones as props, but the monuments are intended evoke the unearthly setting of the play.

“The cemetery, for a large part, acts as a backdrop,” he said. “It’s there as a reminder.”

Lakewood also has been an inspiration to Lencowski and his performers as they ready their production.

“As we’ve walked around and read tombstones, it sparks ideas for stories,” he said.

The writing of “Cityceased” has been a collaborative process, with the actors contributing roughly half of the play’s content.

“All my different performers are bringing in bits of text, like poems that they find, things that they write, ideas they have for scenes … and then we just kind of take those and work with them,” he said.

That cooperative approach to playwriting was something Lencowski picked up during his time with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, where he performed in several productions, including its off-Broadway production of “Hamlet.”

“It’s a pretty exciting and risky way of working,” he said. “Especially for performers, it can be very liberating and it also can be a little scary at the same time.”

“Cityceased” at Lakewood Cemetery runs Thursday–Sunday at 8 p.m. throughout September. Tickets are $12 and go on sale at the cemetery’s West 36th Street and Hennepin Avenue South gate on the evening of each performance.