Death changes everything: suddenly there’s a before and after, the continuity of a life cleft in two. In My Best Dead Friend, Anya spreads herself across this boundary to tell the story of her best friends including the Australian one, the clever one, the best one, and the dead one.
Written by performer Anya Tate-Manning and director Isobel MacKinnon, My Best Dead Friend is a one woman show that opens with an introduction of the five main characters, with an indulgence in Anya’s knowledge of the Backstreet Boys standing in for hers, as well as the town these high school friends grew up in, Dunedin, New Zealand. Using a chalkboard stage designed by Meg Rollandi, Tate-Manning illustrates her story about this group of friends finishing school, going off to explore the world, discovering Marxism, as well as the time they all gathered for Ali and John’s wedding and after Ali’s sudden death.
Tate-Manning’s tone is light and conversational as she ushers in late-comers and hands out chalkboards for audience members to contribute to her diorama, but the dark comedy underneath peaks through in regular jabs at New Zealand’s colonial past. As much as this is a simple narrative about recently graduated high schoolers stumbling around their town for a limbo summer, Anya balances the naivety of that period in her and her friends’ lives against the hindsight that twenty more years has granted her. The structure of the production, running the distant past and near past simultaneously, demonstrates the blurring of time and perspective that “after” allows, where memories become fixed and no longer build into the forward momentum of the present.
In her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes about grief as an acute, temporary mental illness so common to the human experience that there is nearly nothing in the way of treatment or relief. In this show, the relief comes in the simple and honest naming of the thing; Anya’s best friend died and it was horrible. Death is a huge abstract idea hanging around those who fear it or have experienced it but My Best Dead Friend carries death lightly, with a raw yet delicate dignity.
My Best Dead Friend ran at Riverside Theatre from October 11th – 12th