Peter Marks reviews "suicide.chat.room"
By Peter Marks
Monday, Feb. 1, 2010
To be or not to be. A thousand variations on that age-old conundrum are given expression in the end-it-all ethos of "suicide.chat.room," a dance play of fast pulse and earnest impulse.
The energetic evening is brought to you by Taffety Punk Theatre Company, a resourceful D.C. troupe that looks for ways to supplement the fairly conventional diet on which audiences here tend to be restricted. They've accomplished that with this original piece, which strives to achieve a physical language for the death wish. Think of the hour you spend in Flashpoint's Mead Theatre Lab as Martha Graham meets Jack Kevorkian.
It must be said, however, that the concept of "suicide.chat.room" -- infiltrating murky corners of the Internet where people share recipes for terminal cocktails and other tips on how best to die -- proves to be more provocative than what ends up on the stage. The production's monotonous rhythm may be unavoidable, for it turns out people fixated on self-obliteration may be far more interesting to one another than they are to the rest of us.
You're presented here with merely a chorus of unfocused desperation. And it dawns on you that because the quotes cited in "suicide.chat.room" are anonymous, you are taking it on faith that these people really are contemplating dreadful acts. This can weaken a spectator's trust. I'm not saying that many people on a suicide discussion site are not serious about killing themselves (and indeed, I have had firsthand experience with a family member who threatened, then committed, suicide). It's just that it is impossible to know on the basis of what's presented in "suicide.chat.room" how much is the product not of real suffering but of self-dramatization.
The show, directed by Marcus Kyd and choreographed by Paulina Guerrero, plays out on an unadorned black floor mat, with six barefoot actor-dancers. Sporadically, they retreat to the ends of the mat and a pair of microphones, to recite declarations and questions taken from the chat rooms. (The program cites as sources four chat rooms and a 2007 article from Atlantic Monthly.)
Some lines recorded by other actors are piped in over the speaker system, many distorted by sound designer Josh Taylor. "Catching the bus," it seems, is a euphemism for carrying out the threat; the phrase becomes part of the production's nihilistic litany. "I have come to hate every part of myself," one participant explains. "Whatever's out there can't possibly be worse than what we have here," says a second. Others ask for advice. "Is there a way to do it without the risk of being interrupted?" "Is an eight-story building sufficient?"
To this mournful symphony Guerrero adds a rudimentary choreography of staccato moves and sculptural poses. The actors, dressed in black, mingle, caress, use each other to execute simple gymnastics, and retreat to the shadows, as if left to their own bleak thoughts. It's a dark digital room in motion, the precinct of a restlessly scattered collective consciousness.
The actors for the most part remain blank, impassive; of the six, Kimberly Gilbert, a company member of both Taffety Punk and Woolly Mammoth Theatre, creates something closest to a striking figure, her dark hair framing a countenance of disconsolate coldness. The sense of a roomful of detached, disorganized minds is reflected smartly in the recorded music of the D.C. indie rock band Beauty Pill, whose score floods the Flashpoint space with dejection.
After an hour of this, you're left feeling a little blank yourself. You want somehow for the show's creators to complete a more compelling circuit between an audience and the voices of doom they are so diligently trying to amplify.
But even if "suicide.chat.room" could stand a bit more in the way of content development, this troupe needs to have its artistic whims encouraged. It's much easier for a small theater company to pull a title off a library's drama shelves than to tease a new piece out of an unorthodox source. And whatever its shortcomings, this work about giving up suggests that the minds behind Taffety Punk are anything but defeated.
By Taffety Punk Theatre Company. Directed by Marcus Kyd. Choreography, Paulina Guerrero; music, Beauty Pill; lighting, Paola Rodriguez; costumes, Scott Hammar; sound, Josh Taylor. With Elizabeth Abt, Paul Edward Hope, Liz Maestri, Tonya Beckman Ross, Matthew R. Wilson. About 1 hour.