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If you are someone who believes that spoken language is not always the best vehicle to convey the pain, suffering, and hardships that people are sometimes forced to endure, then Asylum is the "play" for you. The quotation marks are meant to indicate that Asylum has little, if anything, in common with a traditional play. There is no spoken dialogue; there is one brief scene where a performer sings. More akin to a gymnastic ballet, this is a story told purely with movement and physicality — apparently one of the few remnants of humanity left to those scorned individuals whose only crime is that their minds have betrayed them.
Asylum is having its world premiere at Burning Coal Theatre Company's lovely restored Murphey School Auditorium on Polk Street in Raleigh. This production is in collaboration with the Brooklyn-based Only Child Aerial Theatre. That name alone tells you that this production is predominantly "in-the-sky," and even without the beautifully told story accompanying it, watching Asylum would be thrilling as a purely gymnastic/athletic/choreographed accomplishment.
Written by Only Child founders Nicki Miller and Kendall Rileigh, Asylum is based, at least in part, on the writings of Dorothea Dix, the 19th century mental health care reformer who also had a hospital bearing her name only a few miles from the theater. The abysmal, degrading, and dehumanizing conditions that have predominated the alleged "care" of patients with mental illnesses has long been a travesty and persists in many places to this day. Despite some very graphic documentaries and an uncharacteristically stark and realistic 1948 Hollywood film The Snake Pit, the treatment of the mentally ill has been a dirty, big secret that is as decrepit as the decaying, filthy buildings where most of these patients were housed – but not truly treated. Asylum, solely through movement, tells the story of four patients in such a facility around the mid-1960s.
It has almost become a fad of modern theatre that the "play" actually begins before it starts, (or vice versa?). The audience enters this very intimate theater and is already in the presence of three of the performers. One is visible, sitting against a wall and writing or sketching in a book. There is someone covered in a sheet center stage, and barely noticeable, is another figure lying atop a piano in the corner. The only real props are several long pieces of white silk cloth suspended from the ceiling. At the conclusion of some introductory remarks by Jerome Davis, Artistic Director of Burning Coal, the figure previously unseen on the piano emerges with a spectacularly controlled gymnastic maneuver and plunks a repeated note on the piano. This is Kendall Rileigh (there are no character names) and she brilliantly sets the tone for what is to come. Another patient, played with magnificent strength, power, and sensitivity by Deon Releford-Lee, emerges from his covering and quickly demonstrates the remarkable ability to convey disturbances of the mind through dance. The third patient, Sloan Bradford, is perpetually angry and aggressive, resulting in being subjected to a straightjacket at times. Nicki Miller plays a nurse, and while she is not quite as passive-aggressively evil as Nurse Ratchett, she does exude a domineering presence, with any substantive treatment of her patients the last thing on her mind. Just a reminder: this is all taking place with not one word being spoken. We then watch a new patient being admitted, stripped of her street clothes, her identity, and control of any facet of her life. Samantha Sterman portrayed this character with great power and her gradual degradation of human spirit.
It would be hard to deny that even without the provocative storyline we could easily watch this performance just for the athletic finesse of all the performers. I have seen this acrobatic skill of climbing and dancing on long, draped pieces of silk cloth before, but some of the moves these members of Only Child Aerial Theatre made were quite astounding. Staying in character and acting while suspended merely by a wrapped cloth around your ankle 20 feet above the ground is something you won't see too often. But, Asylum is most definitely not a circus and there is much more than the physical wow factor. Somehow, especially in a very disturbing flashback vignette involving a patient's baby, these performers tell a story that is easily understandable and resonates with our darkest fears, yet they speak nothing. Like a story that falls flat and you say "you had to be there," any description of Asylum would be the same. There is a wonderful collection of special effects, lighting, and music that greatly enhances the show, one you must experience.
Asylum continues through Sunday, November 1. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.