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ISSUE 117 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/17/2003

"The Man Who" had potential

By Molly Bayrd
Variety Editor

Friday, October 17, 2003

“The Man Who” was a complex, dense production put on by St. Olaf theater Oct. 8-11 and 13-15. Based on Oliver Sacks’ neurological study “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat,” the show was an exploration of several brain injuries, each portrayed with laudable candor by a six-member cast.

Disorders such as Broca’s Aphasia and Visual Agnosia were highlighted in short and simple segments. Slides, a live camera feed (transmitted through two on-stage TVs), and unnerving background music made for a surreal viewing environment.

Showing the greatest range and the most talent was Ian Miller ‘05, who stood out with his portrayal of a patient afflicted with negligence in one of the show’s later vignettes. One moment in particular, during which Miller stared into a mirror and came face-to-face with his disorder, was extremely jarring; the emotions he conveyed were so convincing that I temporarily forgot I was watching an actor in a college theater production.

The second-most solid performance of the evening was offered up by Jonathan Ziese ‘06, as a man with Tourette’s syndrome. Finicky and energetic, Ziese was both convincing and comedic with his assiduous ticks and occasional bouts of swearing. His was one of the liveliest performances of the evening.

Never to be outdone, Ted White ‘05 was a breath of fresh, comedic air. Each of his performances was lighthearted – never too heavy – and none were overly dramatic or offensive. One of the most poignant tales presented in “The Man Who” featured White as a man stuck in a “dream” – a man who believed that his psychiatric hospitalization was a mere extension of his unconscious mind.

When White’s character spoke of his hopes to end his “dream” by jumping off the psychiatric hospital roof (and consequently “waking himself up”), the entire focus of “The Man Who” became more salient.

Director Gary Gisselman’s theme seemed to be that of mental imprisonment, and the questionable extent to which those afflicted with brain injuries are truly aware of their inability to function at a “normal” level.

All of the patients depicted in the production appeared somewhat attuned to the constraints imposed upon their mental capacities by their respective disorders. Yet each patient was powerless to incite changes within his or her own mind. The audience was never sure which aspects of the patients’ tales – their emotions, thoughts, and reactions – were “real” and which were simply the manifestations of various mental abnormalities.

In spite of its clever premise, “The Man Who” dragged on rather monotonously during several different intervals; a long-winded and emotionally erratic portrayal of a woman with Wernicke’s Aphasia (played by Anna Sundberg ‘05), was especially frustrating to watch. The upside to Sundberg’s performance, however, was that it allowed her to show the audience a little emotion; her stage presence was otherwise fairly rigid, and her facial expressions few (although this was, in actuality, Gisselman’s directorial intent).

David Rudi Utter ‘04 and Liz Braaten ‘04 rounded out the cast, and each delivered average, though solid, performances. Utter’s strongest display was his portrayal of a man with Korsakov’s syndrome (the same type of disorder featured in 2000’s “Memento”), while Braaten’s shining moment was her turn as a woman with disordered proprioception.

Certainly, Gissel-man succeeded in bringing an innovative production to the Ralph Haugen stage; “The Man Who” had a highly unique format and focused on unusual subject matter. However, it seemed as though the show was ultimately underdeveloped in its conceptual aims.

With a mere two-hour time constraint framing the play, the actors had only a small window of opportunity to convey several rather heavy ideas.

As a result, “The Man Who” came up just short of what it could have been. Though the actors spent over a month working alongside psychological professionals in order to better grasp the neurological afflictions that would be featured in the production, the audience was allowed only the lesser half of an evening to attempt the same feat.

Perhaps with more concise exposition, a greater amount of background information and a narrower angle, “The Man Who” might have become the substantial and significant production it had the potential to be.

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