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.
Antony and Cleopatra By William Shakespeare; Adapted by Paata Tsikurishvili and Nathan Weinberger; Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili; Produced by Synetic Theater Company At the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre to Feb. 28
The visual splendors typically served up by the movement-focused Synetic Theater ensemble have not gone under-described among chroniclers of the Washington stage, so let’s just say that, yes, the company’s work on Antony and Cleopatra is as richly conceived and as confidently executed as ever. There are precious few D.C. performers, after all, who’d dare undertake to illustrate a passionate collision of titanic personalities with an athletic upright coupling atop a 20-foot pyramid; at a Synetic show, though, you see Ben Cunis’ Antony and Irina Tsikurishvili’s Cleopatra squaring off smolderingly downstage, and you see the pyramid behind them, and you instantly think, “Well, they’re gonna end up there, aren’t they?”
Which is to say that choreographer Tsikurishvili and her director-husband Paata more or less set the terms for physical theater hereabouts, and that each Synetic production is in some ways an exercise in attempted self-eclipse. If this latest venture doesn’t quite trump the company’s very best work—Host and Guest and Macbeth remain Synetic’s most gripping excursions into tragic territory, while last year’s heart-opening Midsummer Night’s Dream is probably its overall triumph—the production does advance the state of the troupe’s art on a couple of fronts.
Most obvious is that Paata Tsikurishvili and co-adapter Nathan Weinberg have tackled a rangier story than ever before; as noted earlier, the clashes involved in Antony and Cleopatra involve dynamics both interpersonal and geopolitical, and it’s fun watching them find nonverbal ways to parse the backroom politics in antiquarian Alexandria and ancient Rome. (A series of mimed Senate votes divvying up power after the demise of Julius Caesar is notably successful; a broad sequence involving Philip Fletcher’s demagogic Octavian and a Cleopatra effigy, less so.)
The venue offers new frontiers, too—the Lansburgh, like the Kennedy Center family-theater space where Synetic has occasionally performed, gives the company room to realize its more elaborate visions, and if what’s onstage is any indication, either the house or the company budget is providing technical capabilities heretofore unavailable.
And so: Hallucinatory stage pictures, impossible contortions (courtesy Alex Mills as Cleopatra’s surreal serpentine familiar), rousing fight sequences—actual sparks, struck from sturdy steel swords! It’s just another ordinary evening with Synetic, which is to say, it’s unlike pretty much anything else you’ll see onstage hereabouts. And if that’s not a morsel for a monarch, I don’t know what is.