Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Left in Ink, Cleveland Public Theatre

It is impossible to truly know the torment of those who choose to take their own lives. We’re not talking here about romantic self-destruction (Romeo and Juliet) but the kind driven by severe mental illness, depression, or other dark forces.

So it is a bold choice for director Caitlin Lewins and company to assemble Left in Ink, a devised semi-documentary attempt to capture the tragedy that suicide imparts on the survivors left behind.

Based on interviews and online posts, the play presents brief flashes of various lives that have been touched, and forever changed, by the suicide of a loved one. And the five-person on-stage cast (Megan Brautigan, Jeanne Madison, Brett Radke, Amy Schwabauer and Jerry Tucker) works valiantly to bring these people to life.

Unfortunately, the script as fashioned by Lewins and the ensemble is a mish-mash of banal declarations of grief and mealy-mouthed platitudes. This happens not because the declarations are untrue, but because the play makes the cardinal sin of not enabling the audience to really experience who the suicide victims really were, or who the survivors are.

Instead of creating flesh and blood characters in the moment, we are force-fed memory tidbits and fragmented character descriptions, such as, “He once said, ‘I will never be happy again in my life!’.” If that sentence was uttered by a character we had grown to know, it would be devastating. But having it thrust at us without context is the height of careless theatrical manipulation.

This goes on for 80 minutes, in a blizzard of misery, crying and regret, with a virtually constant and flat emotional through line from start to finish. Of course, none of these mistakes are done intentionally. The entire company is achingly earnest about this subject—they have just gone about it in an unfortunate manner.

Sometimes the devised, ensemble approach to crafting a play can result in magic (such as CPT’s "Elements Cycle" of plays). But often, it just results in a collection of fatuous bromides lashed haphazardly together with overweening sincerity.

The idea of memorializing the dead through tattooing (see the title) is mostly brought up in the last five minutes and feels like a smudgy afterthought.

Yes, there are a couple moments of much-needed levity, during a “grief montage” and the baking a “guilt cake.” But as foreshadowed in an opening musical bit, this show takes itself too seriously. And by doing that, it unknowingly trivializes the human spirit it seeks to honor.

Without encountering real people to whom we can relate in more than one dimension, we’re left with a flashing, strobe light collection of well-meaning, deeply felt bullet points.

Left in Ink

Through May 31 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit, 216-631-2727.

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