Friday, March 2, 2012

Flu Season: A Dissection

Well over 1,000 words on Youngblood’s new show. (All of them more or less in order.)

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Intro: The Personal Stuff

Youngblood’s latest show is about a pair of people going through inpatient therapy. They’re psychologically disjointed people. Youngblood Theatre company has a tendency to take things off center and find stages away from traditional venues. I like this about them. I’ll joke with Michael Cotey about it on occasion. (At least I think that’s what we’re doing.) Anyway . . . their latest play is a romantic drama about two psychologically disjointed people falling in love in and around therapy. It’s being staged in the disused cafeteria of what used to be the hospital across the street from UWM. There’s a personal history there for me . . . over the years, I’d visited three or four people who had been committed to the psych ward there . . . and now many, many years later I went back to that same hospital to see people onstage pretending to be psychologically disconnected, so it was more than a little weird for me. I might’ve had a slightly stronger response to this show than I normally would have because of the personal connection.

The Premise

At the heart of the play, we have a Man (Jason Waszak) and a woman (Tess Cinpinski.) They’re both patients suffering from psychological problems. Two psychologically unstable people begin to fall in love. Romance has been covered from millions of different angles in nearly every narrative going back to the dawn of time, but Eno brings out the freshness of the concept by having the romance seen through the eyes of two people who are deeply, deeply damaged psychologically. There’s a kind of poetry to their language and their inability to communicate provides a deep foundation for romance. And stripped of all the traditional stuff that romantic dramas usually bother themselves with, we are left a story that goes beyond the clichés to find the truth and the mystery at the heart of it all. This is very, very beautiful.

Tess Cinpinski has played characters falling in love onstage in nearly every production she’s been in with Yonugblood. And here it feels every bit as palpable as it has all those other times…this time just a bit more compelling because its being brought to the stage by a script that goes well beyond cliché. Cinpinski has a really engaging sense of how to deliver subtlety in emotion between the lines in simple glances and here, on a stage that’s just as small as the ones she’s been on in the past, she does a brilliant job of it again.

Jason Waszak is tall and skeletal . . . playing here kind of the rough skeleton of a human psyche that is maddeningly solipsistic at first . . . then gradually opening up to people. And one of the ways he does that is through his relationship with her. The challenge here was to play the disconnect sympathetically enough that he seems human without compromising the tragedy of the whole thing. He’s kind of a jerk, but he can’t help it because he’s mentally ill . . . and tall, skeletal Waszak does an exceptionally good job of bringing that across.

Of course, ultimately the script kind of gets in the way of the authenticity of the characters psychological make-up because they’re characters in a play. There’s a kind of uneasiness and exhaustion that I’ve seen in people really suffering from mental illness . . . and that’s really, really difficult to fake in a play because a play is using a set script that will not change. The playwright attempts to address that issue with a second tier of characters who are formally presenting the play as a piece of staged theatre.

 

The Charmingly Tedious Second Tier of the Play

My god. If I didn’t have kind of an aversion to the term right now, I’d call the addition of characters named ‘Prologue’ and ‘Epilogue’ . . . I guess I might use the word pretentious.

The two characters are played by Youngblood co-founder Andrew Edwin Voss and Ken Williams. They represent two different takes on the story—on more optimistic than the other until right towards the end. Their kind of like a Greek chorus in a way. And they’re really, really tedious. Just tell me the story, Eno, don’t bother me with the rest of your problems.

There IS some poetry to what they’re saying, but a lot of it is intolerably bad—or would be were it not for the fact that director Michael Cotey has Voss and Williams in the roles. I know I’ve see Williams in numerous things over the years and I know I’ve said good things about him, but the fact that Epilogue comes across as being charming at all . . . well . . the fact that whenever the light comes up on him I’m looking forward to thearing what he’s saying—that’s ALL Williams. He’s a really great presenter and has a really dazzlingly casual kind of gravitas in this role that works really well. On the other end of things is Andrew Edwin Voss playing the intellectually optimistic end of the story with a kind of enthusiasm that positively drips with pride. Yes, Voss is fun here, too, but he’s given some of the worst lines in the paly to work with. And the fact that they don’t quite sound that bad is testament to how good an actor he is. We know what’s going to happen to him t he first  time we hear Epilogue talk, but thanks to Voss’ charisma, we’re really, really hoping that it doesn’t happen. It’s important for hope to be maintained. It’s really, really important . . .

But that being said, the characters feel kind of ancillary to the story. I know, I know . . . from a certain perspective, they could be said to be the center of the story as well as they are  the ones  telling it. But even in a weird postmodernist perspective, it’s really, really difficult for an audience to see disjointed narrators as the center of the play. As an audience, we want the romance to be the center of it all and as a result, the presence of narrators here feels like a weak addition added in to pad-out the play. I don’t know…maybe he really IS trying to grapple with the problem of how things never turn out the way you want them to, but that device is as old as Greek tragedy, so in that sense, this is a worn re-tread of something by Sophocles…in a sense . . .

There’s kind of a more interesting intermediary tier between the narrators and the patients that works a little bit better…we see Greg Flattery (yes…that’s what it says in the program. Flattery—like the noun.) as a doctor and Cheryl Roloff as a nurse. We see the romance between psychologically damaged people as reflected in the good intentions of those people tying to help them become well-adjusted. Roloff I’ve seen perform before and Flattery—well, I ‘d remember a name like that…so this is the first time I’d seen him in anything. It’s interesting allowing the central romantic dynamic to be seen in the context of a parallel set of characters who are a bit less psychologically dysfunctional in some respects. Roloff and Flattery do a really good job of providing that background for the center of the play. It also doubles as interesting commentary on the nature of inpatient  treatment for mental illness, but it’s commentary that’s only dabbled in around the corners of the center of the drama. 

 

 

 

(So it’s not a brilliant play, but it’s a good romantic drama with a few really good performances. I liked it.)


 

Youngblood Theatre’s production of The Flu Season by Will Eno runs March 1st -17th at UWM’s Northwest Quadrant Building 4. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets.com.

 


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