Sunday 3 September 2017

Asylum - Theatre Review

What: Asylum
When: 30 August - 16 September 2017
Where: The Owl and Cat Theatre
Written by: Nicholas Walker Herbert
Directed by: Catherine Holder
Performed by: James Di-Michele, Rachel Kamath, Sonia Marcon, Steven Oktaras, and Cesar Pichardo
Sound by: Mbryo

Steven Oktaras and Cesar Pichardo
Asylum is a new play by American playwright Herbert. Directed by emerging actress and director (and newest member of The Owl and Cat team) Catherine Holder, this play is a psychological thriller which asked the question who are the mad people - the inmates or the keepers?

This production has good bones and most of the problems are in the script rather than the performance. Asylum looks at institutional mental health care. Ben (Oktaras) and Katie (Kamath) are patients who are under the care of Dr Grey (Marcon) and her assistant Tom (Pichardo). Ben is catatonic and Katie is haunted by the ghost of Chris (Di-Michele).

These elements provide great raw material in Asylum but the play suffers from not knowing what it is trying to do. As I watched it I was reminded of the American schlock horror series Blood Drive where the inmates have taken over the asylum. Whereas Blood Drive admits its fantasy, Asylum sits too grounded in realism. This then gives me another dilemma in that the mental health tropes are rooted in the early 20th century. The ideas of medicating people into a semi-comatose state and the use of lobotomy as a management procedure are very out of date - not to mention the fact we resist institutionalising unless it is absolutely unavoidable.

Asylum makes no concession to modern mental health care which is why the realist style concerns me. Unless Herbert is a Scientologist - in which case the obtuse bias makes sense - it seems rather reckless to write something so obviously poorly researched. Having said that, Holder and Mbryo have worked hard to notch up the atmosphere of the classic thriller and this does help to eschew the false premises of the play.

The actors are all great. Kamath in particular is intriguing and really portrays the lability of grief and confusion well. Oktaras and Pichardo do good work with poorly developed characters. I liked what Di-Michele did with the ghost and Marcon was delightfully terrifying as she shifted from too sweet to too angry.  Herbert has Dr Grey constantly repeating the words she is being driven to a 'fatal exhaustion' but in the end he goes too far so the outcomes are not unexpected.

Holder has made some really fantastic directorial choices. Her set plays with ideas reminiscent of American Horror Story and her treatment of Katie's story is excellent. Perhaps the one thing the whole team needs to remember is that not every word in a script has equal weight and people are not always talking directly to another person. This kind of nuance will evolve as these young and very talented artists develop their skill and experience.

We don't do horror on stage that often. I really recommend going along to Asylum because there is something about getting close up and personal with the tension which is quite exhilarating. Just try not to get too grumpy about the misrepresentations in the play...

3 Stars

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