Philly Fringe 2017: Elephant Room Productions’ ‘Suicide Stories: Gallery of the Untold’

Performance for a life-or-death cause

As the vague "interdisciplinary" Fringe designation suggests, Suicide Stories: Gallery of the Untold is not a conventional performance, even by Fringe standards. Elephant Room Productions' Fringe debut, a "gallery of living art," explores suicide through nine short works, each of which combines performance with some other discipline. A share of proceeds goes to the American Mental Wellness Association. 

One of nine storytellers in Elephant Room's gallery. (Photo by Phil Czekner.)

Choose your experience

We register at the door, fill out a brief demographic survey, are issued numbers, and are then released into Asian Arts Initiative’s second-floor space. There, each short performance, ranging in length from 10 to 18 minutes, occurs simultaneously. We're free to sit or stand at any station or wander between them.

The convention-defying setup makes each performance intimate — the actors address us directly, in conversational style — but nine conversations occurring at once creates a subtlety-killing din. This cacophony might be deliberate, since we're forced to lean in to appreciate what's being said, or because one problem for the depressed and disturbed is that life's roar drowns them out. For a playgoer, though, it's exasperating.

The pieces that made the most impact on me allowed some separation from the din and intimacy. "The Problem with Mickey," by Daryl Banner, performed by Anthony Cicamore in another room, was one. Cicamore plays a man haunted by a high-school classmate's suicide a decade before. The artistic medium, clay, becomes a play in itself as his hands eloquently twist the gray pieces, articulating what he cannot admit to himself.

I encountered Kat Wilson's "The S.S. Marty" in a corner that allowed some quiet, and when Lesley Berkowitz began, I was her only audience. She welcomed me to art therapy, sharing a heartbreaking tale about her triplet sons while painting.

The spice of life

The nine pieces' variety is impressive, given that the subject is always suicide. "Casual Rape," by Brittany Brewer — which we watch from a hallway through a floor-to-ceiling window, listening via a baby monitor — is a powerful spoken-word and movement piece that Leah Holleran narrates while Mahala Roberson dances. "Broken" is a haunting film by David Meyers, in which Jesse Howland tells his violent story. In Dano Madden's "Jason Dotson," Gary Mapp recites a poem into a microphone. Bridget Mundy’s “Dark Windows” shows Julianne Schaub creating a tile mosaic while telling the story of her father's suicide.

I didn't witness all nine performances in their entirety during the two-hour running time, not wanting to "enter" them midway through — though the actors are prepared to bring latecomers up to speed quickly.

Suicide Stories is dizzying and exhilarating and doesn't end when we move to the exit whenever we wish, without a formal ending or applause. That pre-show survey is used to look up how many people in our demographic committed suicide from 1999 to 2015, information provided on a card. In my demographic, 70,170 people died by suicide, every death tragic and unnecessary. 

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