One can imagine a version of At Black Lake, by the German playwright Dea Loher (translated by Daniel Brunet), that works. It does, after all, have the bones of an engaging piece of art. The relationship between two couples—Else and Johnny, and Eddie and Cleo— intertwined in each other’s drama, with explicit moments of attraction and tension, is thrown into further disarray when tragedy strikes. The description of the tragedy itself, not literally rendered onstage but pantomimed, briefly enacted in proxy by two other characters, is arresting and poetic, if a little too on the nose. The same can be said of several elements of the show and of the Tank’s production, directed by Ashley Tata.
The problems first appear in the play’s foundation, but multiply from the ground up. Loher is the author of nearly twenty plays, which have been translated into twenty-eight languages and had hundreds of productions. So there is inevitably the issue of translation to take into account, of how faithful an English production can be to the original language. However, there are structural patterns in the script that one can assume mimic the original: this text plays with heavy-handed lyricism, constantly repeating words and phrases and syntax that make the dialogue meandering and circular. The issue isn’t that the text flies far from naturalistic speech, but that it fails to elevate its aesthetic beyond the level of affect—and not just an innocent affect but one that slows down the momentum of the entire play. Exposition becomes tedious and roundabout, and any emotional dimension that could be expressed via this particular style (again, one can imagine such a version, in which loss and sorrow debilitate the language, render it useless) is flattened. Even when information is being divulged, it feels insubstantial. The actors have a rough go of it too. Chris J. Cancel-Pomales, Darrell Stokes, April Sweeney, and Heather Benton struggle to bring some color—any color—to the text, but the chemistry between the couples is virtually nonexistent. The few scenes depicting their lust and affection are unintentionally cumbersome and awkward, and, unfortunately, unbelievable. The characters themselves feel only half-sketched, each christened with one signature trait (a heart condition, a need to detach, a need to take control, a tendency to give everything away). But four simple identifiers a well-rounded cast of characters do not make.
While the text simpers in its presentation of a seemingly unfinished world, the undressed set only calls further attention to that unfinished quality, as does Tata’s direction. In early scenes, the actors are arranged in alternating configurations, sitting or standing, in different pairs, having conversations that are sometimes independent, sometimes intermixed, but always staid. Then the actors spend most of the second half of the production standing in a line, delivering short monologues straight to the audience. Black Lake, the setting of the tragedy and the various minor dramas throughout, is represented in spirit, as the actors appear on stage, about halfway through, sopping wet. Sure, we get the implication, but their sudden dip presents a very real and distracting logistical concern: the floor becomes the equivalent of a Slip ’N Slide, which, besides being incredibly dangerous for the actors trying not to break a leg, throws them off their lines and movements.
Some of the show wants to be messy—intentionally circuitous and unclean in its grief. Yes, that’s in its DNA, but the execution doesn’t reveal that messiness in a way that appropriately uncovers the world or its characters. The attempts to play with time and memory are muddled and unengaging, and the characters themselves are not fully formed outside, or even inside, of the context of their grief. At Black Lake aims for poetry and complex, slovenly despair, but grasps the mere facade of its intentions: the sound but not the meaning of poetry, the declarations but not the battered core of loss.