Fractured Identities, Both Internal and External, at soloNOVA
The seventh annual soloNOVA Arts Festival continued its phenomenal first week last night, with the opening night performances of the one-man shows Remission and Monster.
Remission is the autobiographical story of "post-schizophrenic actor" Dan Berkey, written by playwright Kirk Wood Bromley. Berkey suffered from schizophrenia for 45 years -- until in 2006, at age 51, he suddenly and inexplicably experienced complete remission. In a brightly lit room with few props and fewer barriers between himself and the audience, Berkey tells his story.
"I needed to extract certain theatricalities that I felt were unnecessarily distracting to the primary purpose of communicating as simply as I could to an audience, to be there with all of them as one of them," Berkey told me via email before his first soloNOVA performance. "I want this to be, quite simply, a guy in a room with others talking about living through the mystery of madness, with nothing between me and the others. We're all in this together. The piece may have me doing all the talking, but in large part, much of how I say what I say is determined by my interaction with the audience. It's a dialogue, not a monologue."
But while Berkey says he conceived Remission in order to communicate "simply" about his lifelong struggle with schizophrenia, the often obtuse imagery and complex contradictions in Bromley's prose are anything but simple. The use of heightened language, which at first seems like a head-scratchingly dense and jarringly stilted theatrical device that might distance the performer from his audience, actually serves to create a more intimate experience. Because by the time you're mentally exhausted enough to think I don't get it or I give up or Who the hell does this guy think he is?, you realize that you're exactly where Berkey wants you to be: in his head.
"The problem with most pieces about SZ that I've seen," Berkey says, "is that they attempt to communicate literally -- that is objectively, or prosaically -- the various pebbles along the path, and the true essence of the SZ journey is obscured. Ironic. The accessibility of the piece will be in the willingness to open one's self to the experience of confusion, at times. Many have found the rhetoric confusing, abstruse, even cryptic. A large part of the journey is being willing to confront that which is perhaps momentarily opaque. The power of the piece is in the poetry, and the power of poetry is to open doors otherwise closed by clear, objective narrative."
Be warned: Berkey's story is intense, exhausting, unnerving, uncomfortable, and at times incomprehensible. Then again, that's the point. He was a drug addict, an alcoholic, and a sex addict, all in a futile attempt to smother his own mind. Moments of clarity are interrupted by violence and fear. People and things that are absent -- or never existed, period -- take precedence over reality. What is objective is subjective. Heavy stuff, to be sure, but not impenetrable. In the hands of Berkey's deeply personal approach to the performance, and his collaboration with Bromley, dare I say it even makes sense?
Berkey says that he knew he wanted to work with Bromley on a show about schizophrenia after he saw the writer's piece about tourette's syndrome, called Syndrome, in 2002. His miraculous remission occurred in early 2006, just months before the project was officially underway. Remission premiered in a slightly longer form at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2009, where it won Outstanding Solo Performance. Berkey plans to further develop the piece, with the hope to take Remission to teaching hospitals.
"We know so precious little about the psychology of consciousness," Berkey says, "even with all our considerable advances. I'm not trying to give answers. I'm trying to generate questions about the condition. I traveled the journey called schizophrenia, experienced remission, and began a new life in a significantly more assured fashion. I can only say I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be, because I'm nowhere else."
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While Remission brings the audience inside a fractured mind that has spent decades trying to put itself back together, Daniel MacIvor's Monster demands that one actor dissolve himself into at least 16 different characters in a twisted and gripping "movie-within-a-movie"-style thriller.
Avery Pearson plays the narrator and a murderer, a child, a dysfunctional couple, even five people at the same Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and a host of other characters in Monster. He does it all while standing nearly still in the middle of a room, letting subtle changes in facial expression, voice, and mannerisms -- not to mention clever lighting tricks -- define his transitions from one to the next.
"Transforming and shifting from one character to another has been the joy of my life," Pearson says of his experience performing Monster, a challenge he first took on in 2008. "It’s exciting to be a conversation between a bickering couple, cloaked with the narrator’s intention, while holding the audience in the performance. I’m a very lucky actor to play in this world, and I don’t take it lightly. This is a dream role for me... I simply love playing a five-character AA meeting and bouncing between the characters as they divulge their strifes. It’s magical and frightening to be working in a multi-character thriller. Though the fun comes in bouncing between characters, the fear is the condition that they are in. This is a play about addiction. The dark side is in all of us, and I have to allow that to come out in these people."
Monster was originally performed by its writer, Daniel MacIvor, over a decade ago at Performance Space 122 -- the same space that now hosts Pearson and the soloNOVA Arts Festival.
"Mr. MacIvor is a maestro of the solo art form," Pearson says. "There is a massive weight that comes with performing a work that he created from scratch." When he was still a theater student, Pearson saw MacIvor perform Monster in Toronto, and says, "I was completely blown away. This was art. This was performance. This is what the theater was about... It’s certainly shaped my sensibility as an artist and performer."
To reveal much more about Monster would require a few SPOILER ALERTS. But as this dark yet surprisingly funny story unfolds, it is easy to let yourself get wrapped up in Pearson's performance -- just don't forget to pay attention to the disjointedly twisted story being told.
"This story of the evil within all of us is told through humor and suspense," says soloNOVA artistic director Jennifer Conley Darling. "Avery's embodiment of the characters MacIvor has created is one to be reckoned with. His choices are simple and allow the story to be told."
Pearson thanks his director Steve Cook (who currently teaches at Stella Adler Studios in NYC), lighting designer Robin A. Paterson (managing artistic director of Shetler Studios), and theatrical consultant/dramaturg Byron Laviolette for collaborating on bringing Monster to soloNOVA.
soloNOVA, produced by terraNOVA Collective, "celebrates innovative individuals who push the boundaries of what it means to be an artist, aims to redefine the solo form, and uniquely invigorates the audience through the time-honored tradition of storytelling."
'Remission' performs May 8, 10 & 18 at 7 p.m. and May 15 at 2 p.m., and 'Monster' performs May 8, 10 & 18 at 9 p.m. and May 15 at 4 p.m. at Performance Space 122, 150 First Ave. (at 9th St.), as part of the seventh annual soloNOVA Arts Festival, which runs through May 22. For more info about soloNOVA and to purchase tickets, visit the soloNOVA website.
Read about the soloNOVA opening night performance of Binding, Jesse Zaritt's solo dance theater piece, at Blog Stage. Back Stage is a sponsor of the soloNOVA Arts Festival.
-- Daniel Lehman