This is a play about people who talk about killing themselves, cobbled together from text found at pro-suicide Internet addresses and underscored with superb choreography (Paulina Guerrero) and fabulous music (written by Chad Clark and performed by his band Beauty Pill). It is full of the annoying self-important diction characteristic of Internet chat rooms, as suicide wannabes rip into each other with the fierceness of liberals with too much time on their hands ripping into Sarah Palin on the CNN Web site. They compete for attention like shoppers in a Black Friday scrum, eventually falling into a cacophony (the six-actor cast is supplemented with dialogue recorded by some of Washington’s best actors) so loud that it evokes Screwtape’s definition of Hell. Heironymous (Paul Edward Hope) spews out a lesson from his college chemistry course to comment on a proposed plan to derive cyanide from apple seeds, and thereafter cries “frustrated emoticom!” There are a lot of frustrated emoticoms in this production.
Let us be clear at the outset: the characters in suicide.chat.room are not the poor doomed souls for whom despair is locked into their DNAs, and whose suicides are thus as preordained as the allergy victim’s sneeze in a roomful of ragweed. Nor are they victims of terminal diseases, who seek to euthanize themselves as I euthanized my cat last Monday. These are the death romantics, who imagine self-administered death to be as ennobling as we imagined drug overdoses to be, back in the day, or as they imagined consumption to be, in the middle of the nineteenth century. The death romantics imagine their obsessively-planned self-murders to be a sort of art. “I wish I could write that well,” sighs 2Coffees (Liz Maestri) after a particularly eloquent post.
Then they break out into dance. Taffety Punk thus facilitates the self-indulgent impulses of the death romantics by using inspired music and beautifully conceived and executed formal modern dance to represent their jejune impulses. Make no mistake: what Taffety Punk puts on the stage is art. The cast (Elizabeth Abt, Kimberly Gilbert, Tonya Beckman Ross and Matthew R. Wilson join Hope and Maestri) not only capture the self-pitying personas of the death romantics with uncanny accuracy, they execute the complicated and beautiful choreography with unerring skill. And that choreography! – This is unquestionably one of the most successful efforts I have ever seen in a Washington-area play to put dance at the service of the story it means to tell. The technical support – in particular Josh Taylor’s sound design – is absolutely superb. And Director Marcus Kyd, who I suspect is the man who compiled this text, superbly interweaves it with the production’s other elements to achieve a whole which far surpasses the sum of its parts.
But the text parts – they’re not art. They’re bleating. It is useful to compare suicide.chat.room to 4:48 Psychosis, the play-cum-suicide note which the brilliant writer Sarah Kane penned in 1999. In that play the protagonist swam through so much self-loathing and pain that it seemed that her nervous system was on the outside of her skin. Your heart went out to her because you, who had not a thousandth part of her talent, understood as she did not that your life was a free gift from God, which you were entitled to embrace despite your many failings.
Here are the reasons that the denizens of suicide.chat.room wish to leave this lovely and astonishing planet: they don’t have a job. They don’t have a girlfriend or a boyfriend. Their circle of friends is limited. They have found out at a tender age that they are not as special as they thought they were.
And so they hang themselves, or jump from a great height, or prepare hydrogen cyanide from household goods, or shoot or stab themselves – or, rather, they talk about doing those things, and worse. Because, in the end, two things jump out at you about suicide.chat.room. The first is that given the fact that dying is the loneliest thing we do, the chat-room denizens are an awfully social bunch. “Doesn’t anyone want to get on the bus with me?” says the deadly Nightshade (Ross), evoking the current phrase for mass suicide. Eventually enough do, perhaps, to qualify for the discount fare. The second thing, of course, is that everyone in the suicide chat room is alive. These are not suicides, these are failures at suicide, who are successful as suicide chatters.
“It can’t be any worse than this,” Doug44 (Wilson) posts, but of course it can be. The death romantics imagine death to be a place where all cares cease, but we have no idea what lies after our lives. It is, after all, “[t]he undiscover’d country from whose bourn/No traveller returns.”
The other undiscovered country is the Internet where, as the famous New Yorker cartoon has it, “nobody knows you’re a dog.” suicide.chat.room takes its posters at face value. Maybe it shouldn’t. Nightshade, for example, might not be on the bus at all – might simply be some hideous interloper, ten or eleven years old, who has no intention of offing himself but who is fiendishly delighted at his ability to manipulate grownups into eating the old cyanide pie. Lighting Designer Paola Rodriguez cleverly casts the production in shadow and strategic darkness, to show the miasma in which the death romantics are making their choices. Perhaps intentionally, it also invokes the middle ring of the Seventh Circle of Hell, which Dante reserved for suicides.
Compiled from text found at various pro-suicide websites
Produced by Taffety Punk
Music composed by Chad Clark and performed by Beauty Pill
Directed by Marcus Kyd
Choreographed by Paulina Guerrero
Reviewed by Tim Treanor