Most one-act plays want for subtlety. Starved for time, they dial up the stakes immediately, cramming pathos and emotional urgency into every stage direction and line of dialogue. A good one-act resists this temptation, settles for portraiture, cuts a distinct but small thematic swatch. Nivedita Kulkarni's How I Died is a one-act that travels to purgatory, interrogates depression and suicide, and cites the existentialist canon as its inspiration. Surely, this one-act wants for subtlety, too? Hell is other plays about Hell, they say.
Despite this potential to run off the rails, How I Died is an excellent one-act play, more focused and nuanced than its description would suggest. How I Died was written, directed, and starred in by Nivedita Kulkarni, and was a selection for the Strawberry One-Act Theatre Festival's Semi-Finals. It tells the story of Sanya Patel, who must come to terms with her attempted suicide, escape Purgatory and return to life and her grieving family. The play was presented in the The Strawberry One-Act Festival, alongside twenty-some other short one-acts, all in various states of polish, over-dramatism and ambition. How I Died stood out, neutralizing the histrionics of its subject matter with smart formal devices and organic performances. Kulkarni's acting showcases a wild intimacy, an adept movement through wide emotional spectra, a swinging between the humor and the horror of death and depression.
The play is broken into short scenes, jump-cut together. The play's focus flashes from the plaintive wailing of Sanya's family to Sanya wandering in Purgatory, from Sanya's monologue about a Kabuki brush to her memory of her suicide. Few of the scenes have extended dialogue. That's not the point of talking in the play. Kulkarni deftly uses speech as a rhythmic device, vamping "I'm so sorry"-ies and "Why? Why?"-s into tight, cyclical patterns that intentionally go nowhere. This circling effect communicates the inertia of depression, the running in quicksand of grief. No one gets anywhere with words; you can't be talked off the ledge.
There's a moment toward the end of the show, a few minutes before we see Sanya attempting to kill herself. She's followed her two friends to some awful party or club. Pop music is crackling through cheap speakers, terribly distorted and over-gained. It's difficult to hear her friends' conversation, a half-drunk pep talk about how Sanya should be having a good time and be less of a downer. Her friends' advice is muddled by the soundtrack and becomes noise. The effect is wonderful. Words fail, and the essential illogic that motivates depression takes center stage.
The longest scenes of determinable dialogue are monologues delivered by Sanya. As she is pulled under by depression, she fixates on a Kabuki brush, nonplused that such a worthless object could exist, upset by the irrationality that someone would ever need "a slightly bigger makeup brush". Her recurring focus on the brush spells out Sanya's disquiet in a clever, compelling way. Sanya doesn't need to articulate the deduction, "If this matters, then everything matters. If everything matters, then nothing does." Sanya and Kulkarni have the Kabuki brush do the work for them. As the scene fades out, her roommate admits to having bought a Kabuki brush. Only an irrational world would be filled with this kind of excess and the type of people who would subscribe to it.
Interlaced with the party scenes are those set in Purgatory. Here, the play could use editing. "The Keeper", an afterlife watcher of Purgatorial souls, is staged as a campy, booming voice behind a curtain. The Keeper doesn't serve any purpose other than uttering some staid pronouncements about death and finding one's soul. The part could be just as well served by silence, a terrifying nothingness to not respond to Sanya's pleas for assistance. Offsetting this touch of misguided over-emphasis, Kulkarni's has her strongest scenes of acting. One expects an actress playing a newly-dead character to respond with cries, pseudo-profound utterances about life, exaggerated begging. Sanya responds like New Yorker at the DMV. She huffs, she arches her eyebrows, she flatly denies her situation. Kulkarni's impressive attention to detail and sharp performance slowly disassemble Sanya's toughness, letting vulnerability peak through.
As Sanya reconciles with her death, her attitude decomposes into understanding: she's in Purgatory because of her own actions. Kulkarni demonstrates an admirable range, never jerking from sad to angry, never shotgunning Kubler-Ross. Her despair undulates. There's a deep honesty in the performance. She doesn't stare glassily or feign a tear when she jumps off the building. She laughs. The play throws its hands up with the comedy, the nonsense of life.