Walls Trimble

At Black Lake

Reviewer's Rating

At Black Lake, written by German playwright Dea Loher and translated by Daniel Brunet, opens with an arrival. Johnny and Else show up late to Eddy and Cleo’s house on the shores of the ominously named, titular Black Lake for a weekend of rest, relaxation, and re-litigation. The subject? The events and motivations surrounding the double suicide of Fritz (son of Eddie and Cleo) and Nina (daughter of Jonny and Else), who were dating each other when they drowned themselves in Black Lake. The lake, then, is never far from the characters’ minds, and thanks to Krista Smith’s excellent set (she also did the lights), it’s never far from the audience’s mind, either. Smith covers the entire stage with a reflective, cellophane-like material, which, because of the black theater and the single dangling fluorescent bulb, makes the stage seem like a lake viewed at night. As the characters pass across the stage, their reflections pass by beneath them.

This is a fitting choice for a play that revolves around the characters dredging up their histories, both personal and shared. In the hands of a less skilled director, this sort of show could easily lapse into a lethargic drudgery. Luckily, Tata is no such director, and she creates a tense, solemn, and focused world. For starters, she makes hyper-palpable the cross-matched attraction between the two pairs (Cleo with Johnny, and Else with Eddie). Beyond that, Tata’s staging features a purposeful stillness, functionally devoid of the stage business that clutters many realist productions. This minimalism should not be mistaken for a poverty of imagination—here is a world where movement, when it occurs, reveals.

In fact, in the first half of the play, Loher, Tata, and her uniformly impressive cast turn each character inside out with an efficiency that approaches ruthlessness. We learn that Else (Heather Benton) has a fatal, severely limiting heart condition, which restricts her to a quieter life. She bristles at this, but not as much as Johnny (Darrell Stokes), an ambitious banker whose concern towards his wife’s condition is only matched by his resentment. On the other side, Cleo (April Sweeney) tries her best to keep the brewery she runs with Eddy (Chris J. Cancel-Pomales) afloat, while Eddy seems, through his immense generosity, bent on doing the opposite. Johnny and Cleo both feel impinged upon by their partners, and each lash out in their own ways. Their partners, in many regards, are more circumstantially restricted: Else by her heart, Eddy by the false (according to him) accusations of assault lodged decades ago by a homeless teenager. Ironically, neither Eddy nor Else seem too frustrated about these circumstances—they each seem far more concerned about keeping their partners.

The only problem with the revelatory efficiency of the first half arises in the second half of the production. In Tata’s version, the back end of the show mostly consists of the characters standing in a line beneath the single fluorescent bulb (somewhat like a police line up), delivering introspective monologues. At this point, we know the characters so well that the words they speak sometimes border on redundancy. The characters are complex, but, in the monologues, they hardly surprise.

The same does not hold true for the scenes in this section. Their interactions become more cutting, their psyches and sense of reality more frayed, their control over their own actions less consistent. Tata’s staging strays, successfully, further from realism to capture this shift, brought about by grief, but also frustration. The four characters have tried to understand their children, and why those children did what they did. In the end, they fail: the audience knows next to nothing about Nina and Fritz, and their motivations remain as opaque as ever. What we do know an awful lot about, however, is the parents. Looking at the past, it would seem, is a lot like looking at the bottom of a deep lake: in a certain light, you might see the indistinguishable outline of an algae-frilled object. But, more often than not, all you see is your paler self, waterlogged, fixing a forlorn stare skyward, that can see nothing at all.