We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
If Cleopatra were looking down from her monument today, contemplating the advancing Romans, would she log on to alt.suicide.holiday to share her “immortal longings” and her “conclusions infinite/of easy ways to die”? More to the point: Would the chat-room regulars second-guess her about the efficacy of those asps?
Flippancy, thou art cheap. In fact it was pretty startling to contemplate, back to back, the romanticized suicides that cap Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra—currently getting the stylish-wordless treatment from the “art-of-silence” evangelists at Synetic Theater—and the blunt, brutal painscapes conjured by the Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s suicide.chat.room, a collage of sound and movement inspired by real-world conversations in online forums for those working up the courage to finally “catch the bus.”
The first come at the crest of a dramatic arc that encompasses both monumental personal passions and ruthless political machinations, and they’re less despairing gambits than defiant gestures—honor killings, in a manner of speaking, of the only sort Western storytelling typically considers defensible. They’re calculated to stir audiences, and on a large scale.
The latter, on the other hand: No romance there. They’re the drawn-out moans of real people in extremis, sampled and quoted and remixed and refracted. They’re not calculated at all.
Or are they? One of the unexpected discoveries in suicide.chat.room is that these death-haunted forums, where would-be suicides share knot-tying wisdom and trade recipes for fatal cocktails, are as vulnerable as any community to the usual online plagues: attention-seekers and sock-puppets, flame-throwing hotheads and chum-spreading trolls. To hear an earnest poster wrap up a query about the most efficient methods of self-annihilation with a phrase like “Responses welcome, but not from _____” is to understand that even among a community of the desperate, the taxonomic impulse still obtains.
So too—and this is likewise startling, which is probably why director Marcus Kyd and his collaborators circle back to it more than once—does the communicative urge. What does it mean for a woman to respond with a heartfelt godspeed to a farewell message from another poster who’s announced that today, for her, is the day? What does it say about the need to communicate, if you know the well-wishee is intentionally beyond hearing? If your communication is an attempt at connection, isn’t it evidence of a desire, however feeble, to survive? “It’s a basic human instinct, the will to live,” one poster notes, comforting another whose nerve has failed. True enough: It’s the unspoken “better luck next time” that makes the observation sound so surreal here.
You’ll have gathered, perhaps, that suicide.chat.room is designed to provoke debates and questions, not provide answers or prescribe solutions; it’s an impressionistic 50 minutes, an invitation to a necessary conversation, not a thesis about what we ought to do, assuming anything needs doing, about the shadowed realms it considers.
The synth-heavy score, by Chad Clark of the D.C. band Beauty Pill, and Paulina Guerrero’s choreography, developed in concert with the ensemble, are linked expressions, alternately lyrical and convulsive, of an agonizing way of being. The chat-room transcriptions, both sampled and spoken live, get phased and manipulated and distorted to the point that the speakers often can’t make themselves understood—which makes a certain painful sense as metaphor, even as it provides a perplexing, even distancing aesthetic experience.
In short, it’s not an easy place to be, this dark room where the ritual greeting goes “Welcome—sorry you’re here,” and where the people reach frantically out and then push one another away. It’s also, I suspect, not going to be an easy place to forget.