Memory, Mental Health, and Relearning How to Be Human

by Leigh Moyer

You have amnesia so badly you can’t even remember your name. You have no idea who you are or how to regain your memory. No one will even try to help you. You wind up in a care home for people with similar issues; mental breaks and complicated personalities. It is here, at Paradise Found Care Home, that anyone will even attempt to crack the mystery. And, as a blank slate with no idea of your own history, traumas, or coping mechanisms, you are uniquely able to listen to people who have been written off by the rest of the world. This is where Nemo, as his new friends name him, finds himself in Identity Crisis.

I liked this show. It was funny and ultimately deep and heart wrenching. Sometimes it was frustrating that it always went for the joke even in the heavier or more emotional moments, but the play is less about Nemo’s memory and more about the ways we all avoid the pain and problems in our own stories. Because playwright and director Gavin Kayner named each character clever variations on their own mental plagues, I believe this is purposeful. There’s the foolish Professor Inanis (the Latin root of the word inane). And Nemo, the name he gives the memoryless main character (Nemo means nobody). Then Nulla, perhaps a play on null as the young woman is nothing without her imagined alter ego Phanta, a name which sounds more than halfway to fantasy. Even the stage name of the psychic in the house and person who sees Nemo most clearly, is a play on words: Claire Voyient. The characters seem to know they are exaggerations, even calling themselves caricatures, while still being trapped by their own crises. 

Joanne Mack Robertson as Claire Voyient, David Gunther as Nemo, Mike Manolakes as Professor Inanis, and Erin Hepler as Nulla. Photo courtesy of Serendipity Productions.

Joanne Mack Robertson as Claire Voyient, David Gunther as Nemo, Mike Manolakes as Professor Inanis, and Erin Hepler as Nulla. Photo courtesy of Serendipity Productions.

This show hits close to home. I left questioning if it is okay to make so, so many jokes about mental illness. I have gone back and forth on this because while the show is thoroughly enjoyable, it is a show that depends on a cartoonish depiction of people suffering from mental states severe enough that they are removed from normal life and live mostly forgotten and sequestered from the outside world. But that same cartoonishness allowed for a glimpse into what struggling with a mental health issue can look like without it being a total bummer.

I have a mental illness. I have found myself, for about the length of time Nemo finds himself at Paradise Found, in a mental health hospital. It was different. Real life tends to be less on the nose. But the strange people who become momentary best friends, the darkness, the coping in any way you have to, and, maybe most accurately, the truly horrible food were all familiar. 

So too were the moments when a character could shed the unhealthy coping mechanism, even if it was only moments before realizing how hard and scary the world is and rushing back to the safety of a bad habit. This was beautifully and painfully well done by Erin Hepler as Nulla. She made my heart ache for Nulla. Hepler shows Nulla’s extraordinarily bizarre way to face a world full of disappointment and hurt, and shows that Nulla knows it was extraordinary and even not ideal and yet can’t not return to the safety of that coping mechanism. 

I was also impressed by Mike Manolakes as Professor Inais who essentially played three distinct characters. His ability to take on different affects, not to mention accents, seamlessly, made his particular mental trap, while silly, feel true. True to the professor at least.

This production is also fascinating for the acting done off stage. There are a number of times when the stage, and by proxy, Paradise Found Care Home, are made bigger by conversations held in full earshot of the audience off stage. This was taken to the next level by Jessica Spenny as Phanta who interacts with everyone on stage from off stage. Her timing and inflection was informed only by what she was hearing. The cues that can make an actor become a character were literally blocked from Spenny’s view. She lands both jokes and tender moments, her acting limited to what she could do with her voice. Credit must also be given to Hepler for her ability to interact with a character she couldn’t directly act with.

It was wonderful to watch a small group of actors playing very odd and very ill people create a world that was believable. Without a solid cast that trusted each other, it would have felt like a cruel portrayal of broken people. Instead, there is a real love that the actors create for the characters. This was helped by the beautiful set that felt very much homey and not at all like a home. 

Identity Crisis runs through July 28th with performances at 7:30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm on Sundays in The Scoundrel & Scamp theater at the History Y (738 N. 5th Ave.). Tickets are available at the door an hour before the show or by calling (520) 780-7476. 

The Profoundness of the Ordinary

by Annie Sadovsky Koepf

Summer in Tucson and many are trying to escape, just as many try to escape their daily lives when they go to the theatre. The play Middletown, written by playwright Will Eno, tells us to embrace these moments and see the profound beauty and awe that mark them. The entire performance of this production impressed me. The Rogue’s reputation for excellence is more than well deserved!

Middletown is a comedic drama that follows some very ordinary characters in a very ordinary town. The cop in the first scene, played by Aaron Shand, speaks to the audience and tells us, “Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go. Crying, by the way, in both directions.” These simple thoughts really speak to the plot. Various characters come and go, and intertwine with each other, and with us, the audience, to push us to examine those moments between our initial and final tears on this planet. We are left to question our own existence as we follow the lives of the citizens of Middletown. As the theme for the Rogue’s season is obsession, the audience becomes obsessed, as do the characters, with the existential questions that haunt all of us.

Bryn Booth, Holly Griffith, Kathryn Kellner Brown, Ryan Parker Knox and Hunter Hnat in Middletown. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Bryn Booth, Holly Griffith, Kathryn Kellner Brown, Ryan Parker Knox and Hunter Hnat in Middletown. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Rogue Theatre.

Many actors take on various roles, effortlessly switching back and forth. The characters are so different and so believable that you forget that minutes ago that actor was portraying someone else. Kathryn Kellner Brown played the librarian and the female doctor. Her portrayal of the librarian had the entire audience in hysterics, and her compassion and caring was evident as the doctor. As I too am a female actor of “ a certain age,” I am happy to see other older women be represented in theatre. 

In the script, playwright Will Eno asks the actors to speak in everyday pacing, even though much of the dialogue is philosophical and poetic. That was done masterfully by all. Director Christopher Johnson not only thoughtfully cast the show, but ensured the interactions with the characters showed true emotion and vulnerability, which lead to the authenticity of their performances.

Eno does not want the fourth wall to exist in his plays. He names the audience in the list of characters. He invites us to have a participatory experience rather than a simply observational one. The actors speak directly to the audience and even come into the audience. The theater was set up in a transverse arrangement which facilitated this. Not only did you observe the actors, but the audience sitting across from you. Simple sets which were changed by the characters themselves focused all of the attention on the actors’ words and actions. 

The costumes, designed by Cynthia Meier, were believable, simple, and appropriate to echo the ordinary theme of the play. Lighting, designed by Josh Hemmo, was used judiciously to focus attention on a particular part of the stage, as well to indicate changes in the time of day. Music Director, Charles Zoll, did a masterful job of seamlessly integrating the music into the play. Primarily jazz, the music served as delicious background, but did come to the forefront with the one scene where dance was introduced. The jazz reinforced the emotional intensity of each scene, be it happiness, sadness, or joy

The dance performance by the mechanic, played by Hunter Hnat, was simultaneously mesmerizing and disconcerting. The script outlines that he is dressed as a Chakmawg Indian and that the dance is in the tradition of the Apache or the Sioux. Hnat’s character, the mechanic, brings in a headdress and then performs an interpretive dance, with seemingly no reference to Native American dances. At the finish, the nurse instructs him to speak in a stereotypical broken speech pattern, that has often been used to portray Native Americans as they speak English, when he goes in to perform the dance for some children. I have no idea why Mr. Eno placed this scene in the play and why he used such jarring speech. The play was first performed in 2005 when one would hope that the issues regarding non-stereotypical portrayals of ethnic groups would be addressed. I applaud The Rogue, but the disconnect between the thoughtful, beautiful dance and the seemingly insensitive dialogue in this scene was jarring to me.

Middletown was a delightful treat for me. I left with a renewed feeling of hope and appreciation for the simple everyday pleasures of ordinary life. All of us appreciate the feeling of awe that we have in new or peak experiences, but I now want to pay attention to those middle of the road, everyday wonders.

Middletown is playing at The Rogue Thursday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm through July 21st. Tickets are $38, with student tickets available for $15, if available, 15 minutes before curtain. For tickets contact the box office at (520) 551-2053 or via TheRogueTheatre.org. A discussion with the director and cast follows all performances.