A Strange Near-Death Experience: Katie Mack’s ‘#UglyCry’ at Off the Wall

Katie Mack is bereaved but sure not running on empty; she's got a fast-paced trip to share in '#UglyCry.'

Katie Mack is bereaved but not running on empty. She’s got a fast-paced trip to share in ‘#UglyCry.’ (Photo: Mike Vargo)

Old joke, from a sermon by a country preacher: “If you have never come face to face with the Devil—if you have never ever come face to face with the Devil—it is because you’re going in the same direction.”

Something like that holds true for death. We’re all headed there, but do we like to face the fact? In #UglyCry (through October 14 at off the WALL), New York-based theater artist Katie Mack puts her pedal to the metal, driving headfirst into the issues, emotions, and wackiness she’s been immersed in since the unexpected death of someone close to her.  

Arrive early. The pre-show is part of the show, and when you enter the lobby, be prepared. An usher may ask which song you’d like to have played at your funeral. My friend and I hadn’t planned any, so he simply said “Taps while I quick-searched my brain’s flash memory and somehow came up with a spiritual by the Soul Stirrers

Soon you are led into the theater. There you can chat with Mack while she warms up, vigorously, on a treadmill. You will also hear your song choice piped in, as part of the audience playlist compiled by the usher. 

Then #UglyCry begins. Is it ugly? Not in the “Eeww, gross” sense. There’s plenty of humor in this one-person play, much of it from Mack mocking her own mood swings and weird responses to her friend’s tragic death. Lots of high energy, too. Mack is an athletic performer. Periodically she hops back on the treadmill, sprinting hard … yet she’s always stuck running in place, in what is perhaps meant to show that you can’t run away from grief. 

And throughout the play there’s digitally delivered multimedia. 

Swimming in The Cloud

In the same sense that we cannot escape death or sorrow, rarely can we get truly off-grid. The grid now manifests itself through The Cloud, the numinous presence that perpetually serves content to wired and wireless devices everywhere. One could call The Cloud a central character in #UglyCry. On a big screen near center stage you’ll see ever-recurring streams of videos, photos, phone-screen grabs, and more. Here’s a still from a video in which one of Mack’s mysterious cyber-companions applies makeup whilst speaking of dark matters:

Mack roams often in cyberspace. It allows time-travel. She can call up moving images of, and text messages from, her departed friend Eric. These digital records help with “closing the gap between life and the afterlife,” Mack says. At one point she’s relieved to hear that a bunch of old texts haven’t been lost in The Cloud:

Yes, #UglyCry includes a colonoscopy. Also a comically painful waxing session, which Mack undergoes to prepare for a post-traumatic sex date amidst her grief. You don’t see the gory details of the scoping or wax job but you get the picture. You do see a naked rear view of Dalton, the muscular sex partner who turns out to be a nice guy instead of just another hunk. 

And constantly you’re invited to use your phone to participate. To video a few scenes, share them on social media, whatever. Mack has billed #UglyCry as “an interactive night of theater, technology, and resurrection of the dead.”

The Dead Man

What’s ugly, or at least irredeemably sad, is that the man who’s the focus of the play can no longer be present in the flesh. Eric Anthamatten was Mack’s onetime lover and longtime soul mate. He was a PhD-holding philosopher, a part-time musician who liked to clown around (the play has a video), and a black-belt martial artist. He taught at several colleges and also behind bars, being an advocate for prison reform. Two years ago, traveling abroad at the age of 43, Eric tried to intervene in a robbery. The perpetrator had a knife. 

Eric’s homepage, still up, carries a bio.  His obituary tells more. Friends and family have started memorial funds in his honor. His writings included columns in The New York Times and a feature article in The Atlantic. The piece is worth reading whether you try #UglyCry or not.

But the play’s the thing here, and duty calls. Before signing off we must analyze.

Maybe the Play Is Not the End

To my mind, #UglyCry lives in the category of new and recent plays that deal unconventionally with death. You might’ve seen a couple. In Duncan MacMillan’s Every Brilliant Thing—staged in Pittsburgh a few months ago—a solo actor recruits audience members to help act out a story about depression and suicide. In Sarah Kosar’s excellent Mumburger, done pre-pandemic at off the WALL, an eccentric woman has died. Her daughter and widowed husband learn that she’s left them her remains, ground into burgers, to nourish them and keep her spirit alive.  

Both plays are similar to #UglyCry in some respects. They show us survivors coping with a loved one’s death; they use bizarre comedy and high energy to fuel the exploration of grim themes. #UglyCry pushes the experimental envelope more than either. It’s a true story, not fiction. And it adds a parallel theme: the effects of digital technology, which, according to Mack, create a realm where “grief hits different.”

When I was sitting in the theater, though, #UglyCry didn’t hit me as profoundly or enjoyably as I had hoped. Maybe I was the problem. Afterward I spoke with about a dozen audience members who loved it. Maybe 12 to 1 means I’m out of touch. But two things bothered me. Having met Mack in the pre-show, and having found her friendly and likable, I had trouble adjusting to her shift into scripted acting once the play started. To me it felt artificial. Even though she was playing herself—her real self—I couldn’t shake the impressions that her really real self had given me, and almost wished she would forget the script and just talk. 

The second thing was the technology. I am no Luddite. I run my life from my phone. But I don’t like to let it run me. And to me, after a while, the ongoing barrage of tech-generated images and messaging got in the play’s way. It felt excessive. It felt chaotic.

But here’s another thing. Maybe that was the idea. And maybe the immediate, in-the-seat experience of a play isn’t the end. As I write this now, a couple of days later, I feel #UglyCry staying with me. I find myself musing on how I’ve reacted to the deaths of people around me. And on how I view my own, to use a euphemism, mortality. And all of that is complex. There’s no simple story line. No simple answers or meanings. With or without the cyber-sphere, it’s chaotic. 

See #UglyCry. Then LMK. What you think, what you feel. 

Closing Credits and Ticket Info

Katie Mack’s #UglyCry is directed by Susanne McDonald, with dramaturgy and technical direction by Janus Young. Scenic and video design is by Natalie Rose Maybry, lighting and movement by Juliette Louste, and sound by Shannon Knapp. Always honor the stage manager, who for this show is Sarah Shea, assisted by Claudia Zajic. 

The play is presented by off the WALL productions at the company’s Carnegie Stage venue. For tickets and more information visit off the WALL on the web. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

Katie Mack performs 'Ugly Cry' at off the WALL. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Mack’s story persists. This is her ‘to be continued’ portrait. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

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Mike Vargo

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