Spine: ‘We Know How You Die’ and an Oracular Upright Citizens Brigade

We Know How You Die, the Upright Citizens Brigade’s improvised, audience participation exploration of the Oracle, its predictive methodology, and its impact on the American political—STOP!

Molly Thomas, Connor Ratliff, and Brandon Scott Jones. Photo by Teresa Castracane.
Molly Thomas, Connor Ratliff, and Brandon Scott Jones. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

You will find no soothsaying from Woolly Mammoth’s July visitors, no deep ring-side analysis of the Hillary/Trump face-off–NO!

And the only raw emotion present anywhere near this stage is cathartic laughter, the kind that transports you to the void where all the real-world nonsense that could be funny (and is) if it weren’t so serious (it isn’t), disappears.

And I’m a hard man to lose my sense of purpose. Seldom do I escape the brutal realities of the here and now, but then again, it wasn’t my life spiraling out of control last night, as the Upright Citizens Brigade revealed yet another audience member’s ill-met fate and gruesome death.

Death never made a group laugh so loud, or as was the case with one audience laughee–SQUEAL, SQUEAL, SQUEAL.

But, don’t worry, this troupe even has a cure for a squealing audience member. There’s nothing like a can of imaginary oil to loosen a larynx.

The Brigade consists of four ensemble members: Shannon O’Neill, Connor Ratliff, Brandon Scott Jones, and Molly Thomas.

Entering as Grim Reapers, they consult the “Oracle” about the death of an audience member.

Ms. Shannon served as the Mistress of Ceremonies, the Oracle’s high priestess if you will. She led the questioning.

They selected “Amir”. He came on stage. He was interviewed by Shannon–you know: likes, dislikes, favorite people, future goals, etc.

Then the play began: we were about to see Amir’s life, enacted trans-sexually, transgenderly, and with a remarkably clever coherence and respect for the details of Amir’s life.

(l-r) Shannon O’Neill, an audience member, Brandon Scott Jones, Connor Ratliff, and Molly Thomas in 'We Know How You Die.' Photo by Teresa Castracane.
(l-r) Shannon O’Neill, an audience member, Brandon Scott Jones, Connor Ratliff, and Molly Thomas in ‘We Know How You Die.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane.

And we were about to see Amir’s death as well.

In this time of rising life expectancy, yet increasing fear of death, what better antidote to the paradox than astute good fun.

And this troupe knows how to do it. And they know how to bring a house full of people into the party as well.

And that includes people of all sorts: mostly young, granted, but my old soul was there, as were a few parents, with their teenagers.

The repartee stayed comic without vulgarity, stayed imaginative without cheap-shots, stayed multi-leveled without too much scatology–a “shitty underwear” routine being the sole representative of an otherwise situationally robust affair.

Of course, improv being what it is, “Amir: we know how you die” only played last night, and will never play again, and is hereby lost to history (future theatre historians might only have this singular reference to its existence anywhere on the net).

Tonight, the show might be “Lisa: we know how you die also”.

And Thursday, who knows, it might be your story … your death that gets immortalized for 60 minutes.

For those who don’t know, the Upright Citizens Brigade has become somewhat of an institution, with two theaters in New York and two in Los Angeles.

It’s owned by Amy Poehler (of Parks and Recreation), Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. Folks who have worked with them now seem to write for most of the funny shows on TV across the cable universe.

So you should definitely visit the Oracle, but don’t worry, your death can remain a secret as long as you keep your hands down when they ask for volunteers.

Running Time (can vary from show to show): Two hours, with one intermission.


We Know How You Die! performed by the United Citizens Brigade Theatre plays through July 31, 2016, performing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre –  641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

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Robert Michael Oliver
Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., considers himself a Creativist. He has been involved in education and the performing arts in the Washington area since the 1980s. He, along with his wife, Elizabeth Bruce, and Jill Navarre, co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in 1983. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theater and performance studies from the University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theater over the five years he worked as a reviewer than he saw in the previous 30. He now co-directs the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project. He has his first book of poetry, The Dark Diary: in 27 refracted moments, due for publication by Finishing Line Press later this year.


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