The Happiness of Schizophrenia
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
August 13, 2006
The great American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, once said that she knew when she wrote a good poem, because when she finished one, and walked outside, everything looked like a poem. I have a similar experience after seeing good theatre. Not that everything looks like a poem, but colors are brighter, sounds and voices seem more harmonized and connected, and I feel part of some essential grace of life.
And this was my experience after seeing Anthony Wills, Jr.'s flawless and haunting performance of his one-man show, The Happiness of Schizophrenia. This is no doubt performance art, a genre where more often than not I've felt harangued by the self-absorbed politics of the performer who usually relies on one too many gimmicks. But there is nothing gimmicky about Wills's performance, and though his self is front and center, it is more the question of his selfhood that he humbly asks us to help him answer.
The overarching theme of Wills's piece is his fear of going insane, more specifically his fear of becoming clinically schizophrenic. He walks on the metaphorical tightrope of reality, and sometimes I found myself balancing on the rope with him. They are unnerving moments, but his presence is so generous, it's as if his hand is out holding onto ours—he has no intention of falling or letting anyone of us fall.
An evocative soundscape, emotionally charged lighting, and a seamless combination of modern dance and language evince his fear and its possible origins. I've seen many dance pieces where the performer vocalized a story while dancing, and I've always wished they'd just shut up and dance. But his exquisite dancing never distracted, only enhanced my mind's visualization of his stories. At times I wasn't even conscious of his dancing, only the imagery and voices from his past and present.
He is a marvelous storyteller, using details that glisten against an angst-ridden backdrop. He tells of times when his father would come home in a drunken rage. Terrified, his mother and siblings would lock themselves in the bathroom. One time he was locked out so he went to his bedroom and hid in a corner. His father came in thrashing and knocked over a cabinet. Wills describes in beautifully lyrical language crayons hurling through the air and their colors sparkling with the flying shards of a broken mirror. From memories of the past he transitions into dreamscapes happening in real-time. We feel him being pulled from reality, falling into that solipsistic void he fears. He begs us to look into his eyes and remind him he's here with us—that our humanity is not a dream, not a hallucination of a sick mind.
And I beg you, dear reader: do not miss this powerful performance. What Wills allows us to witness is a rare gem in theatre. He gives over every ounce of his trust to the strangers who sit before him. By his utterly vulnerable presence, our human identity is revealed as precious and delicate, and easily lost if not for the sake of love and compassion.