Lyndsey Anderson as Agnes Butterfield, all photos courtesy of Diana Mino Photography
It’s not every day you’re asked to hold hands with strangers and jump over your own lifeline together—but that’s one of the early steps on a journey through the past, present, and afterlife that you’ll take during The Great American Casket Company, an immersive, site-specific play taking place throughout the month of June in Green-Wood Cemetery.
“A cemetery is such a charged space, one that is simultaneously a tremendous opportunity and challenge for storytelling,” says Andrew Lynch, a member of Bread Arts, the ten-member theater collective responsible for the show. “It’s a place of deep emotion and contemplation that confronts an audience with their own mortality.” The show does this through a deeply involved, multi-sensory two-hour ramble that includes puppets, an aerialist, fire juggling, a play-within-a-play, and interactive games. It’s all soundtracked by live original music in many styles, from jazz standards to bluegrass, old-time country to golden-age musical theatre.
The band, Coriander Suede and the Tombstones, leading the audience through the cemetery
Green-Wood Cemetery, founded in 1838, encompasses nearly 500 acres and counts more than half a million people among its permanent residents. It’s a gorgeous, massive, darkly idyllic space, filled with an endless array of statues and mausoleums, marble and granite, ponds and paths. “The plot was completely inspired by the setting,” says Katie Melby, another member of Bread Arts and the show’s director. “We spent many days just walking through the cemetery. We knew we wanted the audience to get to take in as much of the beauty of Green-Wood as an evening would allow.”
Toni Ann Denoble as the president of the Great American Casket Company
The play’s titular company exuberantly lead the audience hither and yon, sometimes all together and sometimes in smaller groups. As their name implies, the company’s stated objective is to sell caskets, as well as all manner of afterlife-appropriate accouterments, to you, the beloved client. But along they way their role seems to shift and grow. Do they want to teach you how to live a good life? Do they want you to learn to find peace in death? Do they want you to confront your fears, or are they in need of ways to confront their own? Do they have the answers to the mysteries of life and death, or are they just as blind and hopeful as the rest of us? As you follow the company around the cemetery grounds, it’s impossible not to ask yourself some of these questions.
But The Great American Casket Company is by no means somber—or not totally. “At times we play against the gravitas of the setting, and other times we really lean into it,” says Lynch. “Ultimately, we hope to strike a balance that welcomes the audience with a bit of levity, then takes them on a journey to something a little deeper.”
This is accomplished well, in part by the ways the cast interact with the setting. Here the Casket Company reps make their enthusiastic sales pitch on a hill while the audience watches from below; there they perform historical vignettes while popping out from behind gravestones. The story unfurls in pieces: by a lake, in a clearing, running through a tangle of trees, and, in its powerful climactic scene, in the cemetery’s stunning chapel.
Ben Lewis as the character 7 in the chapel
One of the most exciting elements of the show is the puppets, conceived and created by Matthew Leabo, who has built puppets for The Pee-Wee Herman Show and several Broadway productions. His work here ranges from a small rod puppet to a massive body puppet a dozen feet high and many others in between, taking inspiration from disparate corners like Japanese bunraku and old European paintings. His puppets fit and make their scenes terrifically—watch particularly for the one that is [tiny spoiler alert!] part of a lake.
Casket Company members and puppeteers operating the Agnes Butterfield puppet
By the end of the play, you may not be ready to buy yourself a casket, but after such a unique and intense experience, you’ll likely be ready to celebrate life. And you’ll be in luck: Each show ends with a reception catered by local NYC alcohol vendors, arranged by Amy Shackelford, whose alternative event-planning company Modern Rebel worked closely with Bread Arts and Green-Wood on this production. “A lot of immersive theater I’ve seen lacks strong narrative, so it was important to me and the fellow creative team that didn’t happen with our show,” she says. “We are really doing our best to rep Brooklyn, honor Green-Wood as a historical (and gorgeous) landmark, and tell a story that truly captivates people. We hope they’ll walk into our reception with plenty of thoughts they’ll want to chat about with friends over wine!”
The Great American Casket Company is on view Thursdays through Sundays in June.