Theatre Review: “Yellow Wallpaper” by NoExit at Q Artistry

A week ago Thursday night, a friend and I minced our way over icy sidewalks, clutching our umbrellas against sleet (not snow, not rain, SLEET) to see the opening night of NoExit Performance’s production of “Yellow Wallpaper” at Q Artistry’s venue: the Irvington Lodge.  The weather was so challenging, I think there was only one other paying audience member.

I tell you about the weather not only to brag about our dedication as theatre-goers, but also to tell you that the struggle to get to and from the theatre that night was worth it.  “Yellow Wallpaper” is a treat:  an intense and beautifully done theatre piece that continues to resonate with me a week later.

What It’s About

Director Ryan Mullins adapted the original short story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was first published in 1892 and which is now considered a classic.  

It is about a woman who is suffering from post-partum depression (it seems obvious to me here in 2013) but she is living in the late 1800s so no one – not her doctor-husband nor her doctor-brother nor her unmarried sister-in-law nor Charlotte herself – knows what’s really going on with her.  They don’t know why she has not taken to motherhood “like other women do.”

Charlotte knows what is NOT helping her: the “rest cure” prescribed by her doctors.  She is in a room on the second floor of an isolated mansion that may or may not be haunted.  She is forbidden to exercise or have company or read or write.  However, whenever she respectfully tries to explain her fears related to motherhood or suggest to her husband or brother that it actually helps her to write and read and go for walks, and that it would make a difference if she could even just move to one of the several other bedrooms in the house so that she didn’t have to look at the garish wallpaper in this one, they dismiss her words, her intuition, her experiences.  And lock her in.

I’d go crazy, too.

Layers of Resonance

If this were just a show about watching a person go insane…well, maybe that would be interesting on some level and I’m sure I would feel sympathy at the time, but I doubt I would still be thinking about the show a week later.

I love a good historical piece so maybe that is why this show continues to interest me so much.  “Yellow Wallpaper” definitely gives a glimpse into what life must have been like for American women and/or anyone with health issues in the second half of the nineteenth century. 

My friend and I both thought of Mary Todd Lincoln as we were talking about this show afterwards.  She was another example of a misunderstood woman in this time period that refused to be meek and was therefore accused of being crazy.  She did have problems, but the culture she lived in didn’t support her in figuring out how to even ask for the help she needed.

And man, if anyone ever wonders why doctors are not allowed to treat their own families any more, this show shows why.

I love a good haunted house story, too, so that’s another reason this show is compelling.  Why IS the bed nailed down in this room?  Are those dark red splotches on the wall part of the wallpaper pattern or something else?  Is that one wall…breathing?!?

Another reason I like this show, I admit, is that I like experiencing famous pieces of prose literature as well-done live theatre adaptations.  It makes me feel more culturally literate, and that makes me feel virtuous, like when I read Moby Dick by Herman Melville when I was in my 40s because I hadn’t had to read it in high school and I suddenly felt I should.  However, this show is MUCH more engaging than that novel was.  This show makes me want to read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s original short story, but if I never get around to doing that, at least I have been introduced to it in an enjoyable way that respects the original.

Maybe the main reason I love this show is that even though it is an historical piece it has relevance for our lives today.  For example:

1)   More than 100 years later, we human beings are still struggling with each other over control issues.  I don’t just mean husbands and wives, either.  Just this week, for example, I read in the December 1, 2012 issue of Kirkus Reviews about a new young adult novel called The Ruining by Anna Collomore.  The Kirkus reviewer said:

“…This intriguing take on the classic story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” finds Annie, a refugee from poverty in Detroit, moving to a mansion in San Francisco to become the nanny for a wealthy couple’s 3-year-old girl, Zoe. The couple pays Annie’s tuition at San Francisco State University and promises her a measure of freedom to study and have a social life. Almost immediately, however, Libby, Zoe’s beautiful mom, takes over Annie’s life, giving her clothing, choosing her university classes and deluging her with advice. Annie idolizes Libby, but she finds her increasingly hard to please. Libby finds fault with minor things, becoming especially unhappy when Annie begins a romance with Owen, the handsome, smart and super-nice guy next door. She demands most of her time, takes the door off Annie’s room and begins to install hideous yellow wallpaper there…”

2)   We’re also each still struggling within ourselves in our own ways to wake up or become conscious or whatever you want to call it.  Maybe it is simply a part of the human life journey, but it is still chilling to see how self-involved, and therefore clueless, Charlotte’s husband and brother are in this story.  John, the husband, doesn’t see that his needs to be right and to advance his medical career are blocking his ability to actually help the woman he loves.  (And I do believe that he loves her and wants to do the right thing.)  Robert, the brother,  refuses to even consider the possibility that sibling rivalry from childhood might be getting in the way of his ability to make good decisions now.  He says things like “Our mother managed to take care of her children so why can’t you?” even though he was a child himself when their mother was “managing” so he really doesn’t have a clue about what she may or may not have been feeling about motherhood or what help she may have had that Charlotte does not, never mind the fact that women are individuals.  But even though the men in the show are finger-wavers, the show itself isn’t.  I love that the show honors the complexity of human cluelessness.

3)   Charlotte wasn’t writing about electronic social media in the late 1800s, of course, but there was one line in “Yellow Wallpaper” that triggered a response in me related to a conversation I had recently with a friend who is a teacher in an elementary school.  His school had sent him to a workshop on social media and the presenter had encouraged the teachers to tweet photos and happenings from class throughout the day to the parents.  I use and enjoy social media very much but I was appalled by this advice.  If I had a child, I would want his (or her) teacher to be fully present and engaged with my child and his classmates when they were together, and when my child came home at the end of the school day, I would want to be fully present to listen to my child about what he had experienced.  No electronic updates could truly replace either of those two things.  In “Yellow Wallpaper,” John puts his wife on a schedule so that he can “know” what she is doing every minute of the day while he is at work.  He says in so many words that this comforts him, makes him feel secure.  I’m sure that’s true, I can even relate to it, but it’s really just more cluelessness since he doesn’t truly see or hear her when he is physically with her, and ultimately he can’t control her mind or her spirit.

There are other ways in which this historical piece speaks to modern times.  If you go see it and feel like telling me about how it resonated with you, I would enjoy hearing from you.

Of course, another main reason I loved this show was because there are craft-related pleasures for theatre junkies in every aspect of it.

The Pacing and the Acting

The pacing is exquisite: slow enough to feel realistic and to build tension but fast enough that we don’t feel bogged down or bored.

The individual performances are skillful, too.  I don’t know Julie Mauro at all in real life and I didn’t realize I had seen her on stage before until I read the program later.   (It was in “Beer Can Raft,” by Lou Harry, at the 2011 Indy Fringe Festival.)  So I don’t know if playing Charlotte was a stretch for her or not.

But in any case…my word, she is good as Charlotte.  I completely believed and sympathized with Julie’s portrayal of Charlotte’s combination of timidity and strength, love and fear, wisdom and increasing insanity.

(I am very sorry, now, that I did not see the two shows that Julie wrote and directed for Divafest in 2010 and 2012.  I was delighted to read that she will be in EclecticPond Theatre’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” by Oscar Wilde .  That was already on my calendar for April for more cultural literacy.  Yay!)

Matthew Goodrich as husband John, Sam Fain as brother Robert, and Molly Tucker as sister-in-law/housekeeper Gennie all convey their characters’ complexities well, too. 

I’ve already mentioned the men’s cluelessness.  Matthew and Sam show, convincingly and subtly, that along with the cluelessness there is arrogance (Robert’s more overt than John’s because he is more confident in his career) and, paradoxically, true love (for spouse or sister) and a sincere sense of duty.  Matthew and Sam show us that, like all of us, John and Robert are doing the best they can with who they are and what they know at this moment in time.

Molly as sweet, youthful, well-meaning but passive Gennie brings a bit of humor to an otherwise dark piece in her attempts to discreetly find out more about Charlotte’s handsome, successful, unmarried brother, Robert.  Molly also does a good job of showing us through her portrayal of Gennie that everyone is clueless and self-involved in one way or another, which means no one is all villain.

My friend and I had heard about “Yellow Wallpaper” when three NoExit artists (Matthew Goodrich, Ryan Mullins, and Georgeanna Smith) were the featured performers in the monthly “Going…Going…Gone” improv show at the Indy Fringe Theatre in January.  We both love going to that series when we can.  We also both loved Acting Up Productions’ A Steady Rain,” which Sam Fain co-starred in in 2012.

So…it was a treat to see two of my favorite destination actors and two good new-to-me actors in one show.

The Design Elements

My notes for this show say “The costumes! The music! The set! Zach’s melty videos!”

My program says that Ben Asaykwee designed the costumes.  They are richly detailed, they fit the actors’ bodies well, and they put us firmly in the right mood and historical period with their dark colors, bustle-y undergarments, and more.

My program says that videographer Zach Rosing designed the sound as well as the video elements.  (More about them in a moment.)  My program does not say who composed the music but it is perfectly chosen to enhance the mood of the show: beautiful and filled with yearning.  It incorporates (I think) cello and flute.  Other sound elements – a baby’s cry, etc. – are also well done.

My program says that Andy Darr designed the set, but that is all it says about him.  In any case, I admire the way his set design manages to communicate both claustrophobia (via the bed with its imposing frame being at an angle in the small space) and the sense that this one cramped room is part of a large house on a vast, isolated estate (via the large, barred window and the door leading onto a hallway that we can sort of see but that also winds off into the dark of our imaginations.)

The largest wall is the special effects wall.  This is obvious even before the show begins, but you don’t mind because the porportions are just right and the coverage of the wallpaper pattern from regular walls to special wall flows so seamlessly.  Also, the blocking (i.e., where the director told the actor to go on the stage) and Julie Mauro’s excellent acting make us believe that she sees something disturbing in all four walls, including the invisible one between stage and audience. 

All three walls of the set, of course, are covered by the “wallpaper,” designed by Michael Burke.  It is almost a fifth character in the show, it has so much…personality.

On second thought, I am not going to further describe Zach Rosing’s video design except to say that it is clever and creepy and fun.  And it enhances the show without overwhelming it.

I do want to mention director Ryan Mullins’ lighting design.  It, too, contributes to the paradoxical feelings of claustrophobia and boundary-less-ness in this show.  Also, Ryan’s bio in my program includes several other lighting credits, which makes me think of the Phoenix Theatre’s artistic director, Bryan Fonseca:  He, too, has a lot of lighting as well as acting experience and he was the first person to make me realize how important the lighting design can be to the artistic success of a show.  I wonder if all of the great directors have lighting backgrounds as well as acting backgrounds.  Anyway, I feel a sense of approval whenever I read that a director brings lighting experience to the table with him or her.

Other credits for this show:

Producer – Ben Asaykwee

Stage manager – Audrey Stauffer

Production manager – Matthew Goodrich

Master carpenter – Rock Hermantin

Set painters – Michael Burke and Tommy Lewey

Hair designer – Daniel Klingler

Marketing – Michael Burke and Lukas Schooler

Program designer – Michael Burke and Scot McKim

Photography – Scot McKim

Seating Advice and Box Office

“Yellow Wallpaper” actually begins in a charming way in the upstairs lobby of the Irvington Lodge, so if you go, try to claim one of the throne chairs to sit in while you wait for the house to open. 

Then, once you’re inside the “Mexico” room*, try to grab a seat in the second row or further back, and slightly house left, if you can.  See if you can see the pillows on the bed AND all three walls of the set, including the baseboards.

If you can’t, it will be okay, but if I go again (and I would like to) I will try to sit further back.  We sat in the front row, which is where I usually like to sit so that I am a) close to the sacred mystery that is live theatre and b) less likely to be distracted by my fellow audience members, but in this venue, or at least for this show, the stage is raised and the chairs are on the flat (not “raised” or slanted) floor, so if you sit in the front row, the stage is almost at eye level.  There is a scene in which Charlotte and Robert are talking in bed and I couldn’t see them because the footboard of the bed blocked my view.

But I suspect, based on the raves I have already seen in my Facebook feed, that this intimate show will sell out its final weekend so you may just be lucky to get any kind of seat. 

To make reservations, visit either company’s website.  Here is a link to the “Yellow Wallpaper” page on Q Artistry’s website:  http://qartistry.org/yellow-wallpaper/.   Here is a link to NoExit’s: http://www.noexitperformance.org/#!buy-tickets/cwj6.  The show runs Thursdays-Saturdays through March 9, 2013. 

*Q Artistry’s artistic director Ben Asaykwee told me that they call the two performance spaces in the Irvington Lodge “Canada” and “Mexico” because one is larger and colder and to the north and the other is smaller and warmer and to the south. 

He also told me that they have signed a relatively long-term lease.  I congratulate both the owner of the Irvington Lodge and the board of Q Artistry!  I am delighted for myself, too, because I love going to shows there.

‘See you at the theatres…

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

(Photos above were taken by Scot McKim and provided to me by NoExit’s marketing director, Michael Burke.)

©2013 Hope Baugh

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