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. 

A List of Epic Proportions

by Marguerite Saxton

For the month of February an evening at the Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre will treat you to an immersive experience: a 65-minute trip into the minds of playwright Duncan Macmillan and director Michelle Milne. In Every Brilliant Thing, the narrator Claire Marie Mannle leads an unsuspecting audience with gentle familiarity, a soft consensual nudge that enrolls ordinary folks in becoming co-narrators in this supposedly one-person show. Though we learn that “suicide is contagious,” we’re guided through farcical absurdity – poignant moments of total surreal accuracy, sobering, convoluted pockets of humor wound within the labyrinth of a life. If space permitted, I’d list a million brilliant reasons to see this play. But here are five:

  1. Theatre-in-the-Round (and round and round and round):

The concentric layout of Mannle’s movement keeps this piece in a groove which guides the audience’s eyes in a continual search around the theatre, peeking at one another’s expressions, wondering where the next scene will be, and guessing what delightful, odd treasures it will produce.

  1. Jazz Music on Vinyl:
Claire Marie Mannle in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Claire Marie Mannle in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

There really isn’t a parallel to the nostalgia that vinyl records conjure. The feel of plastic imperfections running under one’s fingertip, the romantic crackling of static perfuming the air, the ritual of buying and unwrapping. The somatic sitting still. Every Brilliant Thing reveals an undeniable reverence for jazz music, treating us to the moody tunes of Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, and Ometta Coleman, just to name a few. One even gets the feeling that the music is a scene partner, a dramaturg of sorts; giving history and credence to the already vulnerable unfolding of life.

  1. Levity in Depression:

Mannle performs a spoken dance in this play – a magnetic ebbing of transformation. Depression is serious and haunting, a generational ghost. Even so, our fearless narrator is graceful as she weaves between seven year old sheepishness and collegiate courage. She fluidly reveals years of time passing, mere minutes to us audience, but great leaps of life’s monuments in her story. We are taken along the non-linear way that most people think and feel in, possessing a secret notion that we’re privy to some private experience, the ones we keep close to our hearts and share only with beloveds.

  1. Audience Tomfoolery:

In this performance there are particular analog moments that defy expectation and tickle the edges of conformity. It blurs the boundaries of authorship and audience, projecting Mannle like a circus ringmaster who hypnotizes us through a mélange, a maze of memories. There are disappointments, assessments, and antics: sock puppets and improvised conversations with “Dad” – serious belly laughs injected into an ordinarily down-beaten topic of depression.

  1. Snacks

Didn’t know live theatre included snacks? Well, it does. This one does. Snacks!

This play is a craftfully produced arrangement of intimate and uncomfortable situations. It’s a good way to laugh at something difficult, which we could all use some allowance to do now and then. It encourages us to embrace the difficult and strive for better, while permitting many moments to laugh at the irony of it all.

Claire Marie Mannle in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Claire Marie Mannle in Every Brilliant Thing. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre.

Every Brilliant Thing runs from February 7th-24th at The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre, located in the Historic Y at 738 N. 5th Avenue. Evening and matinee shows are available. Tickets can be purchased from scoundrelandscamp.org or directly from the box office on premises. The box office opens for ticket sales one hour prior to the show.

 

Editor’s Note: Marguerite has worked with The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre on other productions and as a teacher with their youth theatre program, she had no involvement with this production. All our reviewers work to identify and avoid any potential biases.