Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Los Angeles


Matt Freitas and Jonathan Salisbury
I've been waiting for a Los Angeles production of Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange ever since it won a bunch of awards in London back in 2000-2001. It's a dark little piece about race, the human condition, degrees of insanity, and the way our own perceptions and biases influence our reality. Sort of an Oleanna by way of Equus, Blue/Orange centers on a power struggle between two mental health professionals as they disagree on the diagnosis of a patient, who is clearly caught in the middle.

The patient is Christopher, a young black man nearing the end of his 28-day psychiatric hold. He's done well with therapy and medications, and is looking forward to his release into the community. His (white) doctor, Bruce, has diagnosed him with Borderline Personality Disorder. While this is certainly a serious diagnosis, it's one that can be managed with medication and would enable Christopher to leave the hospital. But Bruce is concerned that Christopher's behavior is reflective of something rather worse: schizophrenia. If Bruce is right, Christopher's release must be postponed indefinitely, he'll be placed on anti-psychotic medications, and his life will be changed forever. So Bruce calls in Robert (also white), a more senior doctor, to provide a consultation.

In what I truly hope is dramatic license, Robert does not examine Christopher alone, making his own determinations without being biased by Bruce. Instead, Bruce questions Christopher in front of Robert, trying to elicit from Christopher the answers which will best support Bruce's diagnosis. So when Bruce takes an orange from a nearby bowl and asks Christopher what color it is, he already knows that Christopher will answer "blue"; he's asking because it shows Robert that Christopher is experiencing delusions.

Robert, though, refuses to sign off on schizophrenia (he prefers "BPD with delusions"). As the play develops, it becomes clear that Robert has several reasons for not wanting to accept that Christopher is schizophrenic—and not all of them are altruistic. To be sure, he doesn't want to burden the young man with such a feared diagnosis, and institutionalization, if it isn't necessary. But beyond that, Robert has his own theory about race and mental illness diagnoses. If Christopher's case fits in with Robert's theory, it could advance Robert's career. So, just as Bruce is making an effort to have Christopher demonstrate that he's schizophrenic, Robert is making an equal effort to have Christopher demonstrate that he's simply got BPD and is otherwise a black man being misunderstood by white doctors.

Not surprisingly, this doesn't go well for either of the two doctors; playing mind games with a mentally disordered individual is never a good idea. The way Christopher reacts to the doctors' attempts to manipulate him is what creates the drama in the play, as well as a framework for Robert and Bruce's philosophical debates.

Blue/Orange is a three character piece with minimal prop and set requirements (two chairs and a bowl of fruit pretty much cover it), so it isn't surprising that it would appeal to a theatrical company in these days of tightened wallets. Unfortunately, Player King Productions has not given the show the exceptional L.A. premiere that it deserves.

Director Ty Mayberry stages the show in the round—a single circle of audience chairs surrounds the aforementioned two-chairs-and-a-fruit-bowl. While this gives the show a terrific intimacy, it also causes problems. The actors will sometimes use the audience seats, particularly when they're sitting out a scene. But they remain in character even though outside the performance space. The result is distracting; when you're trying to focus on the two actors in front of you, having a third outwardly seething right next to you (while angrily flipping through a magazine) unnecessarily bifurcates your attention. Mayberry also has trouble with scenes where two people are speaking (or shouting) at once—when the yelling is truly simultaneous, the audience can't hear what either person is saying. This problem unfortunately occurs at a key climactic scene in the play, and the result is a production which fails in its most basic task of putting the words of the playwright across.

I also would have preferred more depth from the performers, particularly Matt Freitas as Bruce. Too often, Freitas's tone, when his Bruce is arguing with Robert, is one of shocked offense. True, Bruce is a naïve idealist, but Freitas needs to bring a greater range to his portrayal. Jonathan Salisbury's Robert is often the slick, assured jerk, confident in his position as Bruce's superior and revelling it in, although he occasionally shows a softer side. Frederick Frazier is nicely enigmatic as Christopher, giving us a young man who is clearly troubled, but keeping alive the mystery as to exactly how troubled he is.

Overall, Player King's production of Blue/Orange has enough in it to make you think about the issues raised by Penhall's play, but, in the end, doesn't quite do it justice.

Blue/Orange runs through November 12, 2012, at the Dance Conservatory of Pasadena. For tickets and information, see

Player King Productions presents Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall. Lighting Design Forrest Lancaster; Press Representative Ken Werther Publicity; Stage Manager Gina Lohman. Directed by Ty Mayberry.

Christopher - Frederick Frazier
Bruce - Matt Freitas
Robert - Jonathan Salisbury

Photo: Patrick Viall Photography

- Sharon Perlmutter

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