November 17, 2019
A world premiere’s chorus of voices shines light on mental illness
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
The Manic Monologues. Intriguing title, attention-getting. For those curious enough to follow their instincts to see what was the latest pop-up theater offering from Open Door Rep, they were richly rewarded with the first public performance of a powerful script. This is cultural adventurism at its finest.
Past-tense is what this review is about, as Open Door Rep, true to its minimalist roots, presented The Manic Monologues for only three performances. However, consider this a call to future action if you weren’t one of a several score of creative consumers who embarked on this performance art journey stripped to its essentials.
The setting was a second-floor lounge in the former Franklin School, filled with folding chairs, dotted by several end tables with low-wattage lamps softly illuminating the space. Coffee and cookies awaited those in attendance, while a guitarist filled the room with gentle instrumentation. A reserved anticipation was palpable by the time Open Door Rep founder, Josh Visnapuu, gave some opening comments before the play commenced.
Open Door Rep is mission-based, making theatre more accessible, financially and demographically, to Central Iowa audiences. Consider it theater with a conscience. It opts for a minimalism approach in its productions, giving full focus on the aesthetics and story-telling of the script. Theirs is a very immersive experience in intimate spaces, allowing the story-telling to embrace its audiences.
The Manic Monologues achieved this mission. The audience knew in advance that this show was to support NAMI of Greater Des Moines in its mission to bring greater awareness and support to the plight of mental illness in our region and America. This show personalized the organization’s goals through an eclectic series of monologues, each capturing a person sharing their mental illness. Reminiscent of The Vagina Monologues in concept, The Manic Monologues puts an “Every Person” face on mental illness. This continual wave of stories left an ephemeral imprint in the audience’s minds and souls, as many of these personal journeys elicited understanding gasps and affirmations from those in attendance –soft validations of the experiences shared.
Director Susan Irish was masterful in gathering such a diverse and talented cast. Scattering the cast members throughout the audience created a series of wonderful reveals that enhanced the inclusiveness of this experience. Each character talked about their condition, from bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD, manic, depression, and more, plus combinations of diagnoses illuminating the individuality of each afflicted person’s mental illness challenge. More enlightening, however, was getting a sense of the person behind each monologue. These were people everyone had in their own lives, in one form or another. Certain lines emblazoned their words in the shared minds of the audience: “For loved ones, the stigma is more fatal than the illness” and “He wished he’d had cancer…a real illness…mental illness was an imaginary illness.” There was more theatricality to the performances than was necessary, somewhat distancing the raw power of the mental illness messages. Each story was a powerful indictment about a society that has overwhelmingly tried to bury mental illness into the shadows, often under heaps of denial.
Each member of this cast is worthy of praise for their interpretation and delivery of their roles. The real power comes from the collective piecing together of each part of a very complex puzzle. Open Door Rep’s The Manic Monologues is a moving blend of theatre and social consciousness. Look for this work to catch fire across the country as an important artistic bridge to a better understanding of this national issue. Thanks to the innovative Open Door Rep, we had it here first.
The Culture Buzz theatre reviews are written by professional critics, to inform and enlighten. To receive weekly newsletters, email TheCultureBuzz@gmail.com or visit www.theculturebuzz.com. The Culture Buzz is a weekly broadcast/streaming arts & entertainment show, airing Wednesdays 11:00 AM to 1:00 PM Central Time on KFMG 98.9 FM and streaming at www.kfmg.org.