We Are Only Alive For A Short Amount Of Time @ Goodman Theatre

3.5 out of 4 stars

Obie Award-winning David Cale gives a incredibly endearing performance in the world premiere of We Are Only Alive For A Short Amount Of Time directed by Robert Falls. A musically dashed memoir of hope, family and transcendence. Cale’s work has been hailed by the New York Times as a combination of “reality, fantasy and an almost clairvoyant insight into personality”. After being recently seen Off-Broadway in Harry Clarke featuring Billy Cruddup, Cale returns to the Goodman for his seventh work. 


Growing up in an industrial English town, Cale escapes his parent’s fraught marriage by singing in his bedroom and tending to his birds in an makeshift animal hospital in their back garden. This intimate story weaves the lives of himself, his father, and his brother together into a dark, yet whimsical space illustrating how connected we all are. Cale beautifully illustrates not only how the power of good writing can influence a performance, but it transcends into the audiences memory even more when paired with passionate verbal story telling and a compelling musical soundtrack.


Amid a variety of hanging eclectic wire bird cages, Cale begins the work with a haunting childlike melody entitled “Canadian Geese” quickly followed by a description of his hometown of Luton, England and his love for animals. A childhood determination of making an animal hospital in the back garden turned into an aviary sanctuary for birds. Kevin Depinet aids Cale’s performance with simplistic staging and setting illustrated through small moments and props. It’s like taking several very plain puzzle pieces, but the second you put them together (with music, words, melody, and mid-story) it creates this sense of wonder and growing understanding. 


Cale personifies his late mother and father wonderfully through care dialect and projection. Cale’s personal “younger” voice gives way to a robust round tone of his father and the nasal petite voice of his mother, a charismatic woman trapped by her circumstances. Throughout the piece the blocking wonderfully illustrates visually and subtly the key features of the characters within this memoir. It is a poignant and distinctive marking in personalities with his father being introduced while standing wide legged and his mother first depicted sitting demurely on a stool with hands on knees. The physical blocking of these persons also give the audience a peak at the differences in personality and further depth into a traumatic marriage past the verbal tale. Small details like this or bending down to talk to a stool as your brother rips away the physicality of talking to an inanimate object, but to your dear brother in flesh and blood. There are multiple styles of solo performing within Cale’s work and it was a joy to watch all the variety, which I believe kept the performance far above average and very engaging for audience members. 


The work pulls at the heart strings as Cale’s lyrics and music composition by himself and Matthew Dean Marsh are beautifully accompanied by the live music provided from David Belden (voice), Michelle Campbell (harp), Desiree Miller (cello), Jered Montgomery (trumpet), and Anna Najoom (clarinet). The pairing of a traumatic marriage, longing, and happy events accompanied with beautiful dreamy music creates this transcended space that dances between heartwarming and melancholy. “Are you my boy?” and several other songs play on the idea of repetition which I find fascinating and impressive. The same words over and over could be for emphasis, but moreover I believe they are utilized to illustrated time. Time sometimes warps memories and what we think we remember, but singular words or phrases stick out more than anything when we try to recall the past. An ingenious composition that perfectly evokes empathy in a way that celebrates the connections we make in our lives and that those connections impact us for the rest of while we are living. While coming full circle in a wonderfully written way, Cale truly possesses a masterful control in story-telling and a compelling insight to our own inner workings and personalities. There are surprises around every corner and ironic connections that will occur between everyone that will hopefully one day be looked back upon as a warm memory. Adversity opens our eyes to compassion and celebration. A massive thank you to David Cale for sharing such an honest and intimate piece with the world. It is a wonderful reminder to remember to be true to yourself regardless the pain you come from.  


We Are Only Alive For A Short Amount Of Time appears through October 21st in the Goodman’s Albert Theatre. Tickets are available at GoodmanTheatre.org/Alive, by telephone at 312-443-3800 or at the box office located at 170 N. Dearborn. 

Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with dual degrees in English and Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!