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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Riveting Production of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange

Also see Richard's reviews of Kimberly Akimbo and The People's Temple

Blue/Orange
Paul Whitworth and Paul Oliver
The Aurora Theatre is currently presenting the West End and New York hit Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall at their theatre in Berkeley. This enthralling play that takes place in a mental hospital ward clasps you in a tension grip with three superb actors playing two doctors and a patient who has borderline personality disorder.

Blue/Orange premiered at the Royal National Theatre in 2001 where it won both the Olivier and Evening Standard Award for best drama of the year. The three-character play with Bill Nighy, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln, transferred to the Duchess Theatre and became a hot ticket in the West End. The American premiere took place in the winter of 2002 at the Atlantic Theatre where it became an instant success. The New York Times called it “a ferocious comedy, with dialogue fueled by testosterone and paced liked a valley of bullets.” The American cast consisted of Glenn Fitzgerald, Zeijko Ivanek (currently in Pillowman on Broadway) and Harold Perrineau. Jr. (now in Lost on ABC). This mesmeric drama has been produced by regional theatre companies throughout this country, including Chicago and Seattle. Director Tom Ross has found three top-flight actors to keep this two hour twenty-five minute psychological drama exciting.

Blue/Orange is set in a consulting room at a psychiatric hospital in London and it concerns the welfare of a black patient named Christopher (Paul Oliver) who is far from ready to be released into the outside world. He has been in residence for the personality disorder for the prescribed 28 days and is expected to be released imminently. However, his doctor Bruce (T. Edward Webster) isn’t sure Christopher is ready to face the reality of the world. During their first interview, you can see that Christopher is bouncing off the walls, going from aggitated to calm to doubt, but there is strong evidence of madness in his being. He believes that he is the son of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and that his “father” will kill all persons who picked on him when he was a fruit peddler in the Shepard’s Bush Market of London. The patient firmly believes when looking at an orange, the color is blue, not only on the outside but the inside as well.

Senior Consultant Robert (Paul Whitworth), a cool and placidly patronizing doctor, soon arrives and casually dismisses Bruce’s prognosis that Christopher is schizophrenic and tells the young intern to release the patient. The elder doctor's theory as to why Christopher is “normal” is related to the race relations in London. Actually, Rober'ts main reason for wanting to discharge Christopher is that they need the bed for another patient, and money and space are tight in the medical facility. The confrontations between Bruce and Robert are stimulating during the very long first act, with two scenes running one hour and twenty minutes. Terms thrown about, such as “persecution delusion’ and “overburdened nervous systems,” are what Robert believes are normal to a person with declining social skills.

Conversations between all three are conducted at a cracking pace and we sometimes wonder in the first act why Christopher cannot be released from mental care since he answers all of the questions rationally, even though he has a violent attitude that sometimes comes out during the interview. We slowly see the power levels that fluctuate between the black African patient, the scruffy well-meaning junior doctor who is still interning at the hospital, and the smooth, Maudsley-trained psychiatrist. The power struggle continues to the end, and I won’t say who wins.

Blue/Orange's forty-minute second act is somewhat elaborate and wordy but still interesting since Bruce becomes the center of attention in the confrontations among all three of the characters. The junior doctor emphasizes the social medical system in the United Kingdom and we also see how this intern wants to keep his job and become a chief doctor at the hospital.

Paul Oliver (newcomer to Bay Area theatre and member of the TABIA theatre company in San Jose) is impressive as Christopher. He is edgy and jumpy one minute, turning to a cool person who responds to questions quite normally and reasonable. He is energetic and convincing in both his saneness and his madness. It is a tour de force of acting on the part of this young man.

Paul Whitworth (acted with the RSC for six years and now artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz) is superb as the suave doctor Robert, who quotes R.D. Lang and Allen Ginsberg when bringing out diagnoses and prognoses of the patient Christopher. He also brings in the term “ethnocentric” for the problems facing the black man and eludes to the fact that Christopher's problems are the only suitable response to his human condition. He plays the character like a blundering, stooped “fiftyish” doctor who has to prove his strange theories to others as well as to himself. He gives a beautiful, regulated performance with a striking theatrical voice that excites the audience.

T. Edward Webster (Lobby Hero and Man of Destiny at Aurora plus many roles at A.C.T.) is excellent as the eager, young, steadfast doctor in charge of the patient. He shows the inexperienced uncouthness of a young man who believes he will be a great mental health doctor, but in the second act he becomes uncertain, fighting for his job at the hospital.

Tom Ross brings everything together in the second act. The confrontations are brilliant, and this will change the perceptions of what it means to live a multi-cultural world. The drama that takes place in the hospital is a microcosm of our own outside world. Kate Boyd has designed an excellent set with the audience sitting on all four sides looking down at the institutional consulting room set.

Blue/Orange runs through May 15 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St, Berkeley. For tickets please call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org. The Aurora Theatre closes its current season with The Thousandth Night featuring virtuoso solo performer Ron Campbell opening on June 23 and running through July 24th.


Photo: David Allen


- Richard Connema



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