nytheatre.com review by J Jordan
May 8, 2010
Theatre, most likely, should come with a warning. Or a label. At least some of it. When one heads to see a Broadway show, for example, one tends to have a pretty good idea of what the evening will hold: Flashy lights and costumes, outlandish choreography and set pieces, lots of singing and dancing and music. Such are the things that one often seeks out when one looks toward the theatre, when one wants to escape from it all (and when one muses over justifying the often absurd ticket prices for such opulence).
Then there are the rest of us, the restless of us, I should say. We're the ones looking for something a little more...real. Maybe a little more in one's face. Perhaps something that tells us about others and therefore, even if that other is very much an other from ourselves, tells us something about us. That's the kind of theatre that probably ought to come with a label. Something about taking one ticket's worth and maybe calling in the morning after, hopefully achieving the desired effect.
That desired effect was the subject of much discussion after Kirk Wood Bromley and Daniel Berkey's Remission. I say it belongs to both of them because although written by Bromley, it is the story and life of Berkey, and the two of them, we discovered after the performance, had been working on the piece for some time. It is, in fact, a work-in-progress that premiered at FringeNYC in 2009. Pity I was not lucky enough to see it then, in its infancy. The discussion after the piece was almost as uncomfortable as the piece itself, and thus nearly as enjoyable. To be honest, people were still talking about it while waiting in line for the restroom and yet still discussing it on the street, despite the treacherous weather elements, waiting in line for the next show. Why am I telling you all of this? Because it's been a mighty long time since I've heard anyone—anyone—discussing a piece this much afterwards. And that's a pretty amazing thing.
Remission is not the story of a recovering drug addict, or a recovering alcoholic. Actually, it is, but those are only coping mechanisms, with the real story—and, as I remind you, it is a real story—about a man who is overcome with schizophrenia, and, somehow, miraculously—indeed, he refers to it as a miracle—overcomes it. He's in remission. Ironically enough, Berkey's chosen profession is to be an actor, which he assures us is nearly impossible as he is told that an actor must be able to control everything that he cannot: his body, his words, his brain. Yet he persists. He does a little acting, he does a little bike messengering, and he does a heck of a lot of freaking out. Or should I say, he does a lot of things that freak out the audience.
He can't stop talking. Rarely do we entirely know what he's talking about. He whips out some porn—real pornographic pictures he pulls out of a battered old suitcase (his body?). He runs around so frenetically he exhausts himself, the audience, and the word "frenetic." He makes oatmeal (I'll get to that in a minute). Having known very little about the piece before I chose to see it, I came to one conclusion very, very quickly: This guy ain't kiddin'. Berkey is an actor, and he is—at least was—also a schizophrenic. The stories he tells? They really happened, or something very close to them did. Once that realization sets in, the response is essentially what it's like to look at that famous photograph of one man shooting another, where the bullet has just entered the man's head but nothing has exploded. Yet.
In fact, most of what the audience saw that night was very difficult to take. We were unsure how to react, how to respond, where we were going. We started to feel a little outside of ourselves and like we had no control. We started to possibly get the first glimpses of what it might be like to, uhm, lose our minds, as Berkey seemed to be doing and to have done in the past. There were moments I completely forgot I was watching something theatrical, for it had ceased to be anything of the sort. It was real. This should not deter anyone from seeing the piece. In its honesty, the piece—and Berkey—was never offensive or sensational.
Afterwards, my fellow audience members commented on how discomforting the whole affair was, on how they felt they needed a moment of pause now and again to process what they were experiencing. I disagreed (silently). There is a moment of absolute beauty at the end of the piece when the Daniel Berkey I kept expecting to meet at some point in the piece finally made himself present. He spoke like a "regular" person. He was calm. He was putting the final touches on his oatmeal—actual steal cut oats he spent the better part of 50 or so minutes nurturing, controlling, creating, in between his rants and ravings and writhing. There's something comforting about oatmeal, as there is about finally having control over something—anything. It was one of the most earned moments I have ever seen on stage. I was, in a word, relieved. And, I think, so was Berkey.
If ever there were a writer to put into proper words, terms, states of being, feelings, of a schizophrenic, Bromley would be the guy. I mean that as a compliment. Anyone familiar with his work will know the audience is in for an auditory experience that is both cacophony and beautiful symphony. Someone said (and if they did not, I will gladly take credit), that Bromley is rather a modern Shakespeare with all his poetry and intellectual ramblings, which, well, kind of sound like what a genius might unstoppably spew forth if he were schizophrenic. Bromley's writing is basically Van Gogh's fiery, brilliant, insane brush strokes.
And, with Remission, that's what you get; other than a few miscellaneous but useful props, it's all that is needed—one skilled, amazingly in-control actor, one writer who has taken that experience and perfectly put it into words (if that can be done) without sentimentalizing it (or apologizing for it), and one audience whom they co-manage to get inside of Berkey. It was exhausting, and it was amazing.