nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 28, 2005
Psyche, a new musical by Deborah Wallace and Andy Gillis, is based on the apparently true story of James Barry, a Scottish doctor who had a full and sometimes controversial career during the first half of the 19th century and who—when he died—was discovered to have been a woman.
In the final moments of Psyche, when this discovery is made (the audience having known Barry's true identity all along, mind you), various personages who knew Barry are seen to be reacting to this thunderbolt. Many assert that they should have known; and we come to understand that even in the case of something as fundamental to our humanity as gender, how unable we are to question an assumption that feels equally fundamental (e.g., the 19th century assumption that a successful doctor could only be a man).
Such is the fascinating territory that Wallace and Gillis might have mined with this extraordinary source material. But Psyche doesn't go there, or anywhere else remotely interesting, I'm afraid; even Tootsie plumbed more insightfully into gender issues than this torpid musical ever does. Wallace provides a chronological account of Barry's life, leaving out most of the stuff that I wanted to know more about. What contributions did Barry actually make in the field of medicine? (Wallace puts Barry in a scene with Florence Nightingale in which the nurse bests the doctor on just about every point.) What did Barry accomplish as a humanitarian? (We see him arguing with a Christian missionary about conditions in a leper colony, but then we never find out what happened afterward.)
Or, on a more personal note: What did it feel like to live a life of secret deception for so many decades? Was Barry, presumably chaste most of the time, lonely? Why did the impersonation persist into old age?
Even the most obvious question of all—how Barry fooled so many people for so long—is never explained or explored.
Was Barry a pioneer in the area of sexual identity? It turns out not: the one piece of information Wallace does give us is that Barry fell in love with an English politician named Somerset, revealing herself as a woman to him (and apparently ruining his career in the process, for he was charged with sodomy—why would Barry let that happen?). The arc of Psyche, ultimately, is like an old-fashioned romance novel's: Barry asserts her independence until she finds a man to love. So much for the idea of Barry as proto-feminist.
Though Wallace's book is resolutely linear, director Leon Ingulsrud has staged Psyche as an avant-garde circus, imposing gimmicks reminiscent of the work of Anne Bogart, Robert Wilson, and others upon a text that refuses to be informed by them. The result is only ponderous. Andy Gillis's dirgelike melodies for the few songs in Psyche sound pretty much alike to my (admittedly untrained) ear.
The cast is called upon to do a great deal, from whirling three tables on wheels all over the space in various configurations, to singing, dancing, and—in the case of leading lady Connie Hall, who plays Barry—rising naked from the grave. Some are very watchable, notably Thomas Westphal (who plays Barry's lover, Somerset) and Magin Schantz (who serves as, among other things, one of the evening's two narrators). The other narrator, Akiko Aizawa, is lovely but completely incomprehensible most of the time (her very thickly accented English is difficult to parse, especially given Ingulsrud's choice to remove the curtains that usually form the rear and side walls of the "stage" in the otherwise open Ohio Theatre; those curtains trap the sound—lots of this play's words were lost to the air without them). Hall seemed to have trouble hitting her notes at the performance reviewed, and delivered a characterization so wooden that its stylization must be presumed to be intentional; it did not, however, reveal anything useful about Barry to me.
I feel bad having to reckon Psyche thus: I admire risk-taking in the theatre, and this show has all the trappings of a tremendous risk with the capacity to pay off big. But Wallace's script seems to have bleached all the life out of an authentically colorful subject, and Ingulsrud's non-sequitur style of staging has similarly eliminated whatever sense of purpose that might have remained.