Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Ego looms large in Guthrie Lab's
excellent Blue/Orange

Stephen Yoakam
When I was in London in 2000, Joe Penhall's superbly scripted Blue/Orange was the buzz of the season, and tickets during my stay could not be had for graft nor lucre. By all rights, the Guthrie Lab's excellent production of this sharply funny yet disquieting play should attract Twin Cities theatergoers, like a fermenting apple draws bees.

Happily, Casey Stangl directs Blue/Orange. Stangl excels in directing eloquent, character-driven plays that raise complex issues. Her style here is naturalism and, in her hands, Blue/Orange's three characters are as flesh-and-blood real as the person sitting in the next seat.

The play, set in a psychiatric unit, looks at how ego, erudition and the drive for power can distort idealism and harm those with no authority, who are ill-equipped to compete in power games.

Christopher is an Afro-British patient who has been committed for a 28-day psychiatric assessment. We meet him on his 27th day, and on the following morning. He demands release, but Dr. Bruce Flaherty, a sensitive and compassionate young psychiatrist, distrusts the official diagnosis of border-line personality disorder. He believes Christopher is schizophrenic, vulnerable and in need of further hospitalization. He asks his mentor, Senior Consultant Dr. Robert Smith, for an opinion. Robert, a pragmatic, flamboyant and ambitious man of superficial culture, confirms the original diagnosis and orders Bruce to discharge the patient. A battle of wills over race, class, culture, and the politics of mental illness ensues, and Christopher is the battleground.

In a first-class performance, Stephen Yoakam packs the emperor-sized ego of Robert with gesture, mannerism and panache. He tents his hands and taps finger tips in the manner of an academic; he strokes his balding pate and postures in dapper three-piece suits, complete with cuff links and gold fob watch. For Robert, hierarchy is everything. Clinical practice is as much about self, impressing the higher-ups and imposing his will on others, as helping a patient. Robert's pomposity gets pricked repeatedly, and Yoakam uses barely visible hesitation to hilarious affect.

Playwright Penhall is a master at see-sawing audience emotions. In the opening scene in a bleak assessment room, Robert, though blithely sexist and racist, seems more sympathetic towards Christopher, more in tune to the patient's needs than the waffling Bruce. As the session continues, my sympathy shifted back and forth between Robert's self-regarding decision to discharge Christopher and Bruce's interest in treating him, and I willed Christopher to put both doctors to shame.

In flux is whether the engaging Christopher, compellingly played by Peter Macon, is reflecting the cultural norms of his Afro-Caribbean ancestry or whether he is truly mentally ill. Macon's Christopher manipulates the two doctors, judders his right leg in anxiety, argues and conveys a sense of latent unpredictability. Christopher claims to be the son of Idi Amin, Uganda's erstwhile murderous president, and he clings to a notion of belonging in Africa. Set designer Troy Hourie's video background suggests that Christopher naively imagines Africa to be a land of thatched huts. In reality, he lives alone in a London slum and believes people are out to get him. For him, the flesh of an orange is luminous blue.

Lee Mark Nelson's rumpled and earnest Bruce contrasts nicely with Yoakam's suave Robert. Nelson captures Bruce's professional idealism and his dilemma-to advance he needs to kow-tow to Robert-but in the name of good medicine, he must uphold what he believes is best for his patient. Bruce's Achilles heel is that he's as ambitious as Robert. Under immense strain, Bruce loses control; it's a difficult moment to play, but for that moment, I lost Bruce, the doctor, and became aware of Nelson, the actor.

Stangl directs with a fine touches, like the moment that Robert first breezes into the room, all loud authority. Christopher instantly zips up his jacket, hunches his shoulders defensively and hunkers into himself.

She and set designer Hourie use still projections on a back scrim to amplify attitudes and perceptions: Robert expounds on cultural differences against a backdrop of Tintin, a comic that reflects colonial attitudes towards non-whites. When Christopher leaves the hospital, he enters what he perceives as a bizarre, folded desert, with two snow-laden palm trees. Hourie's main set is a cold interview room, with an observation window, not unlike an interrogation room in a police station.

Penhall's language and terms are distinctly British, and the accents under coach Lucinda Holshue are as polished as Americans can be at sounding British.

I've waited four years to see Blue/Orange, and the Guthrie Lab's production fulfills my best expectations.

Blue/Orange June 5 - June 27, 2004. Tuesdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m. Sundays 7:00 p.m. Matinees 1:00 p.m. on selected Saturdays and Sundays. $22 -$30. Guthrie Lab, 700, North 1st Street St., Minneapolis. Tickets: 612-377-2224, Toll Free 877-44 STAGE.

Photo: © Michal Daniel, 2004

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Elizabeth Weir

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