Archive for March 9th, 2012

Review – 4:48 Psychosis – Fourth Monkey Theatre Company at Theatro Technis

March 9, 2012

A few weeks ago I received an email inviting me to review the new season being put on by Fourth Monkey Theater Company. The season looked pretty dark: the Bacchae, an adaptation of Lord of the Flies, and 4:48 Psychosis, which rang a bell but which I actually knew nothing about. Given the options, I thought this was the play to choose: for some reason, the little voice in my head said “modern British classic,” but I couldn’t get anything more out of my head other than the phrase “tragically short career.” I figured this probably wasn’t going to be a cheery play given the rest of the season, but that’s not why I go to shows: I like dark as well as light. Per the email on opening night, it looked like the play was just short of two hours running time, with a 7:45 start time: ideal for a person like me who still has to get in to the day job after a night on the town. Let the rest of the world worry about getting the new Ipad: I had theater on MY mind.

I’ll skip telling anything you could find out about this show on Wikipedia and say that, per my experience (and from how it was performed), it’s a play about being suicidally depressed, to the point of being institutionalized and medicated. The female lead talks about her feelings and interacts with other people at the hospital (mostly doctors) and describes how she is treated and what she thinks about. At the same time this is happening, we see other people speaking what often appears to be her inner monologue, and occasionally the words of other patients.

I found this play a gripping and realistic depiction of mental illness that for once broke the standard of crazy people being performed in a way that bears no resemblance to actual craziness. Witness the sister in Floyd Collins, who mentions that she was in an institution but then spends the play being dreamy and generally moon-calfy, with a secret smile and a swoop to her arms and a glance that goes to the distance. This is a typical theatrical version of crazy: cute, crazy, prone to running off with cute men without thinking about the consequences, possibly throwing themselves in a river while reciting nursery rhymes.

Crazy is not Giselle or Lucia di Lammermoor, girls in floating dresses dancing themselves to death. Crazy is a person who can talk to you completely normally because they are actually still very much a human being: the problem is their inner dialogue, which may or may not be shared. 4:48 Psychosis gives you those words spoken aloud: you can see that a person with mental illness is still completely logical, that the powerful human brain is still running the show. It just is coming to conclusions like questioning just why anyone would want to bother to be friends with you and “I hope to God death is the fucking end.” Oddly, the statement by itself seems so extreme, but in the context of the play you can see all of the reasoning that lead to it being a logical conclusion (or hope). Wonderfully, the lead actress in Fourth Monkey’s 4:48 was exactly the logical, thinking, engaged, sympathetic, real person she needed to be to be convincingly a person who actually really is not well at all.

In the play, we are shown a lot of the realities of modern institutionalization: not the horror show of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but the depressing truth of the witches brew of medicines people are given to try to make them “better,” along with the laundry list of effects each of these drugs have (so many of the people I know who have been medicated have kept list of their actual reactions to these drugs so that they can remember what does and doesn’t work and what side effects they had to endure); the narrator’s recollection of its affect on her weight and her sex drive was also very poignant and a sharp reminder of how the drugs still inhibit a person’s ability to lead a “normal” life. And the narrator also makes real her feeling of isolation and friendlessness and the frustrations of her relationships with her doctors – none of whom seem particularly interested in providing her with any kind of emotional anchors, none of whom ever seem to engage with her as a person rather than as a patient.

However, overlaying this script was the horrible directorial decision to put some 20 or more other women on stage at the same time, all in costumes that were differing cuts of green hospital gowns. Sometimes they were patients, sometimes they were doctors, sometimes they were the narrator’s thoughts, sometimes they did movement work, sometimes they all shouted together. Too, too frequently they were a distraction to the actual words of the show. Only once were they effective, when they surrounded the narrator and, as her thoughts, essential drowned/tore her apart: otherwise I found their clownish overacting killing my engagement in the show. I couldn’t help but think that the actresses were having a hard time splitting themselves off from their work in the other plays in rep. I finally got to the point where I couldn’t stand the noise levels anymore, and realized – despairingly – that per my estimate we still had 45 more minutes to go. (“20:46 boredom” was the comment in my notebook.) And suddenly – the stage cleared to one person and glitter fell from the ceiling, and then no one was there. And I realized it wasn’t the interval, the play was done, and we could go home. What a relief!

While at the end I felt highly impressed by Sarah Kane’s writing, I was really turned off by this performance. I hadn’t realized: it was a student show. I usually don’t go to them. In retrospect, I’m glad to have been exposed to the play, but this production was heavy handed enough to ruin the evening for me. Ah well. By 9 PM, I was down the street at a pub, and if nothing else I got a full hour discussion in about how this play could have been done more effectively.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 7th, 2012. It continues through Saturday, March 17th. Another review is here.)

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Mini-review – Floyd Collins – Southwark Playhouse

March 9, 2012

Let’s not say too much about how I came to be at the Southwark Playhouse for a matinee on a sunny Saturday – I had the free time and someone said, “Hey, there’s this musical on,” so I went, knowing absolutely nothing about it.

Floyd Collins is a play about a man who gets stuck in a cave while looking for a new possible tourist attraction (in Depression-era Kentucky this seems reasonable, and the play is based on an actual incident). The Vaults is a great setting for a show in which much of the action takes place underground, and the use of ladders to indicate cliff faces and also to let the actors physically demonstrate the difficulties and challenges of moving around underground made the experience quite visceral – I was really able to buy into the caver’s predicament and the harsh truths of people’s physical conditions affecting their ability to rescue Floyd. The desperation was also made even more visceral by seeing him actually stuck on the stage for the entirety of the first act, sitting on the floor while everyone else “on the surface” was getting on with life. You couldn’t help but get creeping feelings of claustrophobia.

Ideal setting aside, there were problems with sound quality that meant I frequently could not hear what the characters were singing. But this was less of a problem for me than the fact that the music was a style I simply don’t care for – vocal noodling without any sort of real tune. So I while I could hear the music perfectly, and I could hear enough of the lyrics, I didn’t like it at all. And as the story carried on (Floyd’s sister really wants him out; a cub reporter is actually able to make it to where he is trapped and bring him food; a media circus begins to happen on the surface as the story spreads across America), and the music continued to be not compelling (sure, a riddle song is fun, but I’d like it more if I wanted to sing along), I sort of mentally drifted away, as Floyd himself might have. But at some point I began to feel a sense of freedom, and my spirit lightened: I’d just realized that I didn’t need to stay to see the second act, and that, in fact, it made no sense for me to do so. Not only was I not enjoying myself, I realised I didn’t care whether Floyd lived or died. And there was no longer anything to keep me back from rejoining life on a sunny spring afternoon on the streets of Southwark. And as the music drew to a close for the first act, I felt a sense of joy as I prepared to leave the darkness. It was just a pity I couldn’t do anything to help poor Floyd. Oh well: every man for himself.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, March 2nd, 2012, which technically was still winter but please grant me artistic license. Note that a friend of mine who is a fan of this composer was having an ecstatic experience, so your milage may vary: I can at least say that I thought the singing voices of the various characters seemed pretty good in general, although, as ever, nobody seems to know how to perform as a crazy person.)