Spoiler alert: Everybody dies at the end of Hand2Mouth's Memento Mori. But they also die at the beginning and middle, onstage and offstage, in anticipation and in memory. And that’s the point of this play.

The theatre ensemble's final production of the 2023-2024 season is a series of sketches with only a wisp of chronology. It was worked up by a five-person cast, written by the actors themselves, and based largely on their own experience and memory. 

Kai Hynes in Memento Mori photo by John Rudoff
Jenni GreenMiller in Memento Mori. Photo by John Rudoff

The phrase memento mori is usually translated as: "Remember that you are going to die." It's a command as old as pre-Christian Greece, urging us to engage more with our current life. At the same time, paradoxically, we must mistrust the idea. Hand2Mouth's sketches expand on both sides of the command, as the arc of the show very appropriately follows early childhood to death. A child’s first experience of death, for instance—often the death of a pet—shows that we must learn that we will die. Dogs and hamsters don’t have to learn this. A child ages. A missing uncle morphs into a meditation on what the uncle may be doing. Actor Pedro Dominguez movingly mimes the shriek of grief about a drowned brother. 

Death itself, and the dead, have their say in this production. A corpse discusses his own gaseous, flatulent dissolution, boasting that before he became a blob, he was just like us – which reminds us that we, too, will be a blob. Death herself complains too, whining to her psychiatrist that she’s tired of being the heavy, the black hat, excluded from life’s daily engagements and pleasantries—though with a surprise twist.

This all sounds like a tough slog for an early spring evening, but it isn’t. Director Michael Cavazos’ note in the show's program recounts a lingering truism: In our recent past, death was more familiar to everyday life. Death’s separation from our common experience—by hospitals, medicine, and the death industry—is a rupture of our experience of our own lives. The show tries to reintegrate those aspects of human experience. 

Memento Mori succeeds most in its underlying conception, a goal of showing death’s role in several stages of life—youth, maturity, old age. If death is always present (and she is) then the play and players can escape rigid narrative chronology. 

Photo by John Rudoff
Photo by John Rudoff

At times, these transitions are abrupt. If you look for traditional storytelling and sequence, you will be disappointed. However, from the very opening of the show, we felt deeply involved in what was happening on the stage. 

Cavazos has created a leisurely pace for these heavy subjects, and the time spent on mysterious physical movements felt long—as contrasted with more verbal portions. The work was originally designed with six actors—on the night we saw it one was one was absent due to injury—and it may have too many pieces to explore the impactful depth of each. 

But when the actors speak, they kill. For instance, Nurys Herrera masterfully employed a taut, penetrating beat about the lethal fallout from a Shining Path car bomb in her Peru childhood. Jenni GreenMiller resurrected her mother’s death in chilling detail, and struck with a flash of anger that showed the consequences of today’s effacement of death. 

The subtitle of the show—a meditation on death—tells us what we must do. The show itself shows us what we might consider. Despite its short runtime of a little less than an hour, the ground Memento Mori covers is impressive, and thoughtful—it gives us back to life quickly, so we can get back to living.

Memento Mori plays at Imago Theater, 17 SE 8th, through Sat May 11, find tickets and showtimes at hand2mouththeatre.org