Memoirs of a Manic Depressive
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 27, 2005
Memoirs of a Manic Depressive lets audiences walk a mile in Gary Mizel's shoes. Mizel lives with bipolar disorder—what used to be called manic depression—and so the journey is, for most of us, both unfamiliar and insightful.
He's written a one-man play about himself and his experiences. The first half is mainly exposition about the nature of his condition and some of the facts of his life. So we learn that bipolars experience euphoric highs during which their egos go unchecked; Mizel says he thinks he's God, or nearly so, at these times. Episodes that we might characterize as paranoia are a side effect: Mizel tells us that real voices on television, movie screens, etc. seem to be directed only at him, and that illusory voices emanate from the walls and ceilings (he insists to a woman staying overnight, for example, that the FBI is keeping tabs on him).
Contrasting with the highs are terrible lows, and Mizel explicates these to us as well. Their principal manifestations are inertia and suicidal tendencies, and in the show's most harrowing segment, Mizel narrates the sad story of his mother, also bipolar but not so effectively medicated given the technology of the time. She begged her son to help her kill herself and, because he understood the deep pain she was experiencing, he allowed her to do so.
A clear but intangible shift occurs about midway through Memoirs, as the structure loses linearity and the relatively plain talk about bipolar disorder gives way to a stream-of-consciousness ramble that illustrates Mizel's life from the inside out. A lengthy account of an affair with a woman who turns out to be schizophrenic gives way to an even looser reminiscence about an abortive scheme to create a film company serving minority artists and audiences. Both stories are unsettling for their lack of traditional dramaturgical robustness and even more so because it's difficult to know what's "real" in them. Is the girlfriend actually schizophrenic, or is this one of Mizel's delusions? Is the film venture a noble effort gone awry, or the hallucinatory ravings of a mentally unstable man? We can't finally tell, which may well be Mizel's intent: we get a feel for the utterly off-balance world of the bipolar by being jarred and jolted and assailed with a reality that may or not coincide with an "objective" one.
The result is that Memoirs of a Manic Depressive is a fascinating, even unique experience, but also a very disturbing one; this is quite a difficult play to sit through. I think that's good. I left with this question: If a playwright who is not bipolar writes a convincing one-man play about a bipolar character, we'd probably call that art. If a bipolar playwright writes the same play about his own experiences, while taking meds that "control" his symptoms, is it art or a documentary? And if the same bipolar playwright writes the play when he's not medicated—and Mizel tantalizes us with this possibility at the very end of his play—then what is it? That's a rhetorical question, of course, but it illustrates the potency of this piece, which definitely makes us confront our own perceptions of reality and sanity and place them in a context we probably never even think about.
Mizel's script takes us interesting places. The production itself is not quite so successful, unfortunately. It's directed by Lorca Peress, who also designed the sound for the show, much of which is arresting and useful in conveying Mizel's state of mind at various points in the narration. But often the sound feels overdone (as does the lighting, which is by James Mojica); I think more restraint in some of the staging choices might help make the piece feel overall less taxing to the audience. Actor Dexter Brown plays Mizel and he delivers an uneven performance, capturing the highs and lows viscerally but faltering during the more difficult stream-of-consciousness sections that fill most of the second half of the play.
Note, though, that I saw the first performance, and so it's likely that some of the problems I observed will iron themselves out with time. In any event, Memoirs of a Manic Depressive certainly qualifies as vigorous, challenging theatre. I applaud all of the artists involved, especially Mizel, for tackling such a raw and personal subject with so much candor and courage.