Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., July 9, 2004
Political AsylumThe Off Center, through July 10 Running Time: 2 hrs
When you first step into the Off Center for this original production from Shard Live Performance Collective, you're confronted with a set of floor-to-ceiling metallic bars that bisect the space from wall to wall. In other words, half the space contains the audience and the other half the stage, but it's not so much a stage as a cage because of that huge set of bars. If you examine them closely, you'll see a rolling gate that will allow a huge section to move to one side and let out whatever's being caged in.
What's being caged in are the patients at Park Alliance, a fictional mental hospital somewhere in these United States, created from the collective minds of writers Jesse Rabinowitz, David Pierce, Kathryn Rowe, and Steve Forth. In the first act, we're introduced both to the patients, from the obsessive-compulsive to the manic-depressive to the schizophrenic, and to the doctor and nurse who care for them well, perhaps "care" isn't the right term; "herd them around" might be a better way to describe it. In the second act, the patients present the culmination of their drama therapy program, a show titled A Funny Thing Happened on My Way to the Forced Isolation Ward, in which a female God allows an impotent Abraham to have sons with both his Jewish wife and his Arab servant, thus initiating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; two policemen raid a man's house in search of a gun that he, of course, doesn't possess; and, in a scene of undeniable power, Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, and Martin Luther King deliver words of wisdom that have seemingly been lost in the sweep of present-day events.
It's heady stuff, and the headiness extends into the programs as well. In the company biographies, the actors refer to their own mental health (one "needs counseling," another has experienced "head trauma") or their politics (one quotes Frederick Douglass regarding the "Negro problem," another refers to his "closeted establishmentarianism"). Before A Funny Thing is presented, an additional program is passed out providing bios of the patients, and suddenly the irony figuratively slaps you upside the head. While on one level a play is all a put-on, on another level a play is as much about the individuals involved as it is about the story they tell. Actors don't "play" characters so much as embody them, become them. For the time they tell their story, actors are both themselves and the characters they play, and this essence of the theatrical experience is made that much clearer in the way Shard approaches this particular piece.
I wish it all had been so clear. Director Steve Forth has his actors talk over, through, and past one another; they mumble, scream, and bounce off the walls and everything else. Because of the nonstop motion and casual enunciation, I often had trouble understanding what was going on and, in the end, can't really say what I was supposed to take away from the experience. Maybe that was the point, but this kind of approach doesn't necessarily lead to effective theatre. Or, perhaps it does, if you're attempting a kind of everyday chaos. Both the audience and the patients are, after all, looking through the same set of bars. Who's really trapped? Who are the patients? And who are the ones that can provide the cure?