ORLANDO — Imagine you’re sitting alone in a quiet restaurant. Seated at the table next to you are two people, and one of them is talking constantly about his past feelings of depression, anxiety, fear and even suicide. He’s not necessarily maudlin, but rather hyper. He talks in a rapid fire, nonstop monologue about what it’s like to be an insomniac who can’t sleep, and how he experiences excruciatingly dark feelings when he’s awake.
How you’d respond in that situation will play a fairly big role, I suspect, in your reaction to the play “I Think I’m Dead,” by Al LaFrance, who imported this hour-long show from Montreal. For some people, being seated at that dinner table and hearing the innermost thoughts and feelings of a stranger might be fascinating. For others, they might start squirming.
“I Think I’m Dead” is being presented at the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival, and if you’re a veteran of Fringe, you probably know that this, the oldest running Fringe festival, gets a lot of solo shows (not surprising, considering the low costs involved; you don’t need directors, actors, musicians or anyone else when you go it alone).
What those solo performers have done over the years is pretty diverse: comedy monologues, a mix of music and comedy, portrayals of historic figures, and magic shows, among other. Some aim for very safe, traditional forms of entertainment — stand up routines, or cabaret — while others have been wildly experimental. LaFrance’s show was, considering the subject matter, something of a mix between the two, although his extremely intimate revelations about feelings of depression and suicide won’t jibe with everyone’s view of entertainment.
But I also understood what he was trying to do. Coming out into a bare stage, he immediately starts talking about his struggles with insomnia and what it’s like to sleep for only a few hours a night — and then to be bombarded with horrific nightmares the entire time he’s out. But if that aspect of the monologue sounds depressing, it’s not.
His rapid fire delivery and manic style are more often comical than downbeat; he recounts, with fine humor, how as a child he came to dislike his older brother over an incident where Al got pushed — but was he pushed? — into a river. His Rashomon-style story of how not only he and his brother, but also both his parents, came to develop entirely different versions of this “accident” is also clever and insightful. The same can be said for his recollections of attending a good friend’s wedding in Cuba, only to see the event get dashed by a hurricane, or how he discovered that the Billy Joel song “Uptown Girl” is the ultimate escapist medley.
He also talks about what it’s like to growing up in a family where everyone has a history of depression and is on medication for it — meds that he refuses to take, until one night after a performance where he gets home so exhausted that he becomes convinced he’s about to have a devastating, debilitating heart attack — and that makes him realize that if it does happen, as powerfully as he fears, then all his problems go away. That’s when he starts to wonder if he has a serious problem.
I suspect we all have friends, coworkers, family members or colleagues who are one time or another have cried on our shoulders about how crummy their lives are, and maybe even insisted they wanted to kill themselves. Depending on our personality type, we either immediately want to hug and reassure them … or quietly sneak out of the room. So the concept of discussing depression and suicide as a stage show probably sounds off-putting to more than a few.
The good news: there isn’t a trace of self-pity or schmaltz in Al LaFrance’s tone and approach to the material. This is not some guy on stage whining about lousy relationships, bad jobs, and so on. His life seems far too busy and hectic for pity fests. This is someone opening up before a live audience about something much darker and more ominous, that mercifully few of us ever have to experience. And I can imagine putting on a stage show about it can be highly therapeutic.
So that in that sense, I do get it.
And he has moments when he can be funny, clever, bold and sometimes even appealingly demented. Just go in there with an open mind: this is not a cheerful subject matter.
“I Think I’m Dead” is being performed in the Purple Venue at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, as part of Orlando Fringe. Tickets are $10, and you need to also purchase a $10 Fringe Button to get in to see the shows.
Upcoming performances of this show are on Wednesday, May 23 at 10:30 p.m.; Friday, May 25 at 10 p.m.; Saturday, May 26 at 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 27 at 4:30 p.m.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..