Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Divine madness

Original Article can be found HERE

Next to Normal

MUCH HAS been said about this Pulitzer-prize and Tony award-winning piece that has dared bring mental illness center stage -- literally. The fact that it’s a musical about such a topic is unusual enough. But that it was on Broadway and not the fringes, playing to full houses, is a statement of an audience’s readiness to heal and deal. (Of course, Rent paved the way by singing about people living with HIV-AIDS more than a decade before.)
Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo surrounded by (clockwise from top) Jett Pangan, Jake Macapagal, Bea Garcia, Felix Rivera and Markki Stroem
Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo surrounded by (clockwise from top) Jett Pangan, Jake Macapagal, Bea Garcia, Felix Rivera and Markki Stroem
Next to Normal focuses on a good Everywoman, Diana, living with a diagnosed bi-polar condition for 16 years. Her cycle swings from manic to depressive, and her family is dragged along for the ride.

On some days she is a sweet, loving and affectionate wife and mother to her husband Dan, her son, and her daughter Natalie. Before you know it, she is feverishly whipping up their lunches, making a hundred sandwiches for three. She pops a rainbow of pills, and gives her husband a good romp in bed.

Then on other days, she sees dead people, slumps to the floor, ravaged with guilt and horror as her demons pick at her wounds. Dan looks on with pained helplessness, while Natalie rages against the unfairness of being born into such an abnormal family, and acts out.

Diana has been numbed by the cocktail of medications she has taken over the years. She misses the highs and lows of feeling feelings. When she sees her daughter being kissed by Henry, a young man she doesn’t even know, she is appalled at having missed the milestones in her family’s life. Upon the prodding of her son, she decides to stop her medication, and tosses out her pills.

The consequences are disconcerting as the united states of Diana don’t quite come together. She then consults with yet another psychiatrist who uses hypnosis to bring to the surface events that have traumatized her, and she allows herself to feel her pain and loss for the first time -- with devastating consequences. Diana unravels as she loses the protection of her delusions, paving the way for another medical intervention: electric shock therapy, now known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

With a spectacular score and book, Next to Normal makes a compassionate case study out of Diana’s condition, deconstructing “insanity.” It’s made even more layered by a non-judgmental look at the co-dependencies that mark the relationships in a family and the choices each member makes. These are not songs an audience sings along with, but rather feels along with. The dialogues that weave through duets, trios and quartets are more exposures than expository, as we get to know more intimately the demons that each character faces.

It’s the characterization of the doctors, however, that brings us to question the agenda of Next to Normal.

With more than just side-swipes at America’s romance with pharmacology, Next to Normal shows surprising irresponsibility in its indictment of psychiatry. Of all characters, the doctors play closest to stereotype (from the names alone: Dr. Fine and Dr. Madden), a choice we were hoping would be avoided or completely shelved. With the advances in holistic psychiatry, it seems archaic for the play to categorically denounce psychopharmacology as a viable treatment option, or play up to the public’s perception of the horrors of ECT, reinforced by movies or books that are a throwback to an era gone by.

A gimmick used at the beginning of Act 2 almost pushes Next to Normal to a fantastical telenovela.

But the play rightfully offers a transpersonal perspective (a persistent character, and a revealing line towards the end captures that) by not attributing Diana’s mental problems solely to imbalances of circuitry or chemistry -- the affliction is far more transcendent. But the play does no service by demonizing the effects of treatments that have actually helped many cope with their conditions. It seems so ’70s to push mental aberration as an idealized personality enhancement and tout the “I’m weird therefore I am” line. In fairness to the material though, there are other forces at work when Diana makes the decision to go off to find her Self.

Philippine theater at its best

There’s a shock of recognition when we realize that the issues besetting this family are not very far removed from our own. Replace manic-depression with some other handicap or illness, and you’ll see that at some point we are Diana through our disability; we are Dan, a toss-up between unconditional love and delusional martyrdom; we are Natalie in our seething resentment toward our own limitations and to those around us; we are Henry, ever loyal and ever needing-to-be-needed.

And if we are not them, we certainly know people like them.

But for all the brilliant characterization and music, Next to Normal is next to nothing without a cast that nails it, and without a director that has the sense and sensibility, and courage, to take it on.

This production has both.

It is no small feat that Atlantis Productions was awarded the right to produce this first international English production. But it is well-deserved. Director Bobby Garcia has proven to be fearless in his choices of material, and has the razor-sharp intuition for spot-on casting. He has always been unafraid to challenge Filipino audiences, which also means that he holds them to a stellar standard of understanding and appreciation of difficult, if not controversial material.

And there are three words that sum up the jewel in the crown for Next to Normal:

Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo.

Her Diana is unabashed, unapologetic, unembellished. It is so rare to see such rawness on Philippine stage. It would have been easy for an even slightly lesser actor to fall into the trap of self-consciously annotating the part (look at me, I’m so good at playing the crazy woman!). But Lauchengco-Yulo, who is a world-class theater luminary, internalizes Diana down to guts and entrails, rather than in overarching gestures of drama and pathos.

It was sometimes difficult for the preview audience to deal with her anguish, and felt voyeuristic to see the suffering, the tracks of tears, body fluids spewing. It is a brash, wrenching performance, alternating with self-mockery and moments of bearable lightness of being, but gone all too soon. It is mind-boggling how she will be able to achieve the same level of intensity through the play’s run without burning out.

But it is to this cast’s credit that even with such a performance as Lauchengco-Yulo’s, the actors worked with such community.

Ever-dependable Jett Pangan (it is always a treat to watch him) as husband Dan shows a different, quiet kind of anguish as he knows his world hangs by a thread every single day. The revelation in the end of his own repression gives Mr. Pangan a striking vulnerability.

Bea Garcia as Natalie is feisty and has a compelling physicality to her approach -- we look forward to her onstage more often, as with Felix Rivera who plays the brother, and Markki Stroem who plays Henry, the ardent admirer. Both young men are earnest and sincere actors, though there is a darkness to Rivera that would be interesting to explore more of on stage. Jake Macapagal in the twin roles of the frivolously named psychiatrists Drs. Fine and Madden, played the rock star hilariously.

The parts are not easy to learn, and to sing through emotion is challenging, but this luminous cast pulls through.

Under the excellent musical direction of Ceejay Javier, rock melds with jazz fused with classical, supporting and never overshadowing the cast or mood.

In the coming years though it may be inevitable that Next to Normal will go the way of Normal, and lesser theater groups with lesser actors will attempt this and go the woeful way of current Rent productions, disconnected from their authentic context. But while it is here, under Bobby Garcia’s watchful eye, with a committed, dedicated, no-shame-barred cast, just brace yourself and Go. See. It.

Catch Atlantis Productions' NEXT TO NORMAL (THE REPEAT)
on October 15, 2011 / Sat / 2PM @ RCBC 

Contact Us:
Onay Sales (0918.536.2116)
RC Marzan (0922.888.5348)
Borgy Marzan (0922.888.5344)
email: watchplays@yahoo.com

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