'Portraits of Madness' drives audience wild with its breadth
Published: Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 23:05
The ticking of a clock. Moans of pain and ecstasy. Screams and laughter. Enter a world of madness. Lily Nagy-Deak's '11 senior thesis, Portraits of Madness, presented by Free Play Theater Cooperative, debuted last Wednesday in the Merrick Theater in the Spingold Theater Center. Focusing on the depiction of madness from the dramas of the ancient Greeks to present-day musical theater, Nagy-Deak chose 12 of the most poignant scenes from 10 different shows spanning this vast time period. Each excerpt, though taken out of its original context, worked well within the show to demonstrate the shift in the portrayal of mental illness on stage over time.Typical of Free Play, the show was thought-provoking and intense. From the moment viewers stepped inside the theater, they were submerged in a feeling of discomfort and other-worldliness. Center stage, Emily Bunker Peterson '13 sat perfectly still, confined to a chair and restrained by a straitjacket. Her eyes were covered and she didn't react to the sounds of the audience entering.
This was the setup for the first scene from The Insanity of Mary Girard by Lanie Robertson, in which Peterson played Mary Girard, a woman sent to an insane asylum by her husband. Mary questions whether the voices inside of her head, played beautifully by the entire ensemble, are real or not, and the audience is thrown directly into the conflict.
The choreography and sound were particularly amazing, especially in the aforementioned scenes. The choreography by Greg Storella '11 was key throughout the play, and the actors nailed it, circling Peterson and snapping their heads or arms in the same direction in perfect synchronization. As they tormented Peterson, it seemed that the entire cast of six people was moving as one cohesive unit, embodying the fear that existed inside of her. The sound, designed by Cynthia Simonoff '12, was amazing as well, involving a mix of prerecorded, eerie voices that contrasted with Peterson's live, more human voice.
The sound didn't reach its high point within scenes, but during the transitions between scenes, the ticking of a clock was played in slowly increasing increments, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere.
Unlike the usual protocol for scene changes, when the actors abandon their characters in order to make the necessary prop adjustments, in this production, the actors maintained their character motivations even during set changes, with mini-dramas going on in the seconds between scenes when the stage was dimly lit.
This stood out because there was no break from the show, no time to sit back and relax or discuss what just happened with a friend. Rather, the action continued throughout, getting increasingly more and more intense.
Another inspired scene was from one of the more familiar shows, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Alex Cadena '14 shone as the so-called sociopathic, McMurphy, who is forced to sit in on a communal therapy session with fellow patients, played by Aaron Berke '12, Alia Goldfarb '13 and Cathy Messier '13. While Dr. Spivey, played by Aidan Horowitz '12, and the menacing Nurse Ratched, played by Peterson, made the scene disturbing, the patients brought a note of comic relief to the drama with their blunt dialogue and strange physicality.
Although the show was stimulating and intriguing, one of the challenges it faced was covering such a vast span of time (2,417 years) in such a short show. One of the solutions was the costuming, designed by Shana Burstyn '12, which matched the characters with their time periods to avoid confusion. Even so, the jump from Shakespeare's Hamlet and King Lear to The Insanity of Mary Girard (1979) and then back in time to The Shrike (1950) was somewhat jarring. Since most of the scenes dealt with the era from 1950 to 2009, the inclusion of Shakespeare and the Greek Orestes, while significant to the theme, seemed discordant with the rest of the show.
Portraits of Madness ended on a note of hope, concluding with two upbeat musical numbers from Next to Normal. A talkback followed, giving audience members the opportunity to ask the performers and production staff questions about the show and the artistic choices that went into it, a smart way to end a show that was so thought-provoking and challenging.
The actors and production staff, including lighting designer Elana Friedland '11, props designer Tess Suchoff '12 and stage manager Hannah Roth '14 did a great job of bringing the fantastic concept of the show to life in its execution, leaving the audience pondering the nature of madness as they left the theater and returned to the insanity of their everyday lives.
Editor's Note: Aaron Berke '12 is an Arts staff writer for the Justice.