Memoirs of My Nervous Illness
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 14, 2005
Okay, this one's the real deal, folks: Michael Gardner's Memoirs of my Nervous Illness is the most exhilarating, engaging piece of theatre that I've seen in quite some time. More involving and interactive than any Halloween haunted house is likely to be this month—but in its way just as scary—Memoirs bombards the senses and the intellect with a precision that's absolutely uncanny; it's a wallop of theatrical daring and invention that jolts and startles and reminds you why the heck you even go to theatre in the first place. Anything but playful in its serious consideration of what it might be like to be insane—that's what it's about—the show nevertheless restores the idea of "play" to the play. The audience, on its feet throughout the 90-minute performance, follows the actors around the intimate playing space at the Brick Theater, who spin out, in all kinds of unexpected ways, the contents of a madman's tormented mind and soul.
The particular madman in question is Daniel Paul Schreber, a German judge whose delusions (that he was the center of the universe, that he was being turned into woman, and others) led him to be institutionalized in an asylum in the late 1800s. Schreber wrote a journal while incarcerated (the memoir of the title), which writer-director Gardner has adapted into the script for this remarkable play.
Now I imagine that if Schreber were alive today he'd be diagnosed as bipolar and would probably be treatable with medication. In a way, we're fortunate that he instead lived a century ago, because he left such a compellingly vivid account of what the world was like to him, and Gardner and his collaborators have captured it with astonishing success here. There's a narrative, sort of: The play begins with Schreber's arrival at the asylum and his decision to write the memoir. It then proceeds through imagistic depictions of inner thoughts, things witnessed and observed, and visitations from family and friends, all splayed out in stream-of-consciousness fashion that's nonlinear (though generally chronological, I think), repetitive, and disjointed. It has the quality, somehow, of being both abstract and very specifically concrete at the same time—there's a sequence, for example, where Schreber collects memories of all the unfinished sentences that he has heard/accumulated during some unspecified time period and records them in his journal. Gardner stages this vignette with Schreber seated in a bath tub while spectral figures intoning the unfinished phrases drift by him at accelerating pace. Talk about discombobulation!—it's hilarious on one level, but so potently alienating and disaffecting that we share, at least for a moment, in the unnerving sense of disconnectedness that must have characterized practically every second of Schreber's terrible delusional life.
Gardner and company sustain this for the full hour-and-a-half of the piece. The five actors—let me pause to name them now, and to say that their work here is astoundingly good: Hope Cartelli, Jessi Gotta, Ian W. Hill, Robert Honeywell, and Jeffrey Lewonczyk—pop up in different locations around the room, often dragging set pieces before or behind them, creating miniature installations that define, sometimes with breathtaking brevity, the environment of this or that particular observation or random thought of Schreber's. The items comprising the set—a tub, a desk, a couple of chairs—morph into different identities in ingenious ways, perhaps none more intoxicatingly surprising than the wooden bench that turns into a piano with the addition of some strings attached to Honeywell's white-gloved hands.
Joe Levasseur's lighting—hands-down, the most effective design I've ever seen in an indie theatre production—defines the space spectacularly and guides us, through darkness, to wherever the next mirage is about to materialize. The actors, simultaneously playing Schreber plus all of the ghosts and spirits that he conjures from the depths of his dysfunctional brain, often seem to materialize as well, and then to drift away into the dark unlit recesses of the space. They're clothed in surreal period costumes created by Iracel Rivero that match the mood set by Gardner's text and choreography and Lavasseur's lights to perfection.
The audience is encouraged to move around in the dim space and get as close to the actors as they dare. This makes the experience of Memoirs ultimately about us—about how it feels to be disoriented and suffering from sensory overload from who-knows-what direction or source and to who-can-guess-what purpose. Contributing to the random unexpectedness of it all is the fact that the actors don't know themselves exactly where the audience will be at any given time during the performance, making each show unique and also upping the energy in the room: everybody's a participant in Memoirs of my Nervous Illness, molecules bouncing through space trying to avoid collision and creating palpable electricity in the process.
Correction: there is one participant here who always knows exactly what she is about to do, and that's valiant Board Op Berit Johnson, situated godlike above the proceedings and manipulating the light and sound with eerie precision, imposing order on the apparent chaos and reminding us, rather palpably, that even from the depths of madness there's a desire for reason, for rigor, for righteousness.
Memoirs of my Nervous Illness is a total immersion in the pure power of theatre. Throw yourself wholeheartedly into the spirit of the thing and you will have an unforgettable—and fun!—sensory experience that is revitalizing and profound at the same time.