A Private Staged Reading Of “The Pill” At The Firehouse, Wednesday, May 18th, 2017, Reviewed
“They sell every kind of gum except juicy fruit…” The Grandmother is referring to the mental hospital where her granddaughter is residing. If Marla Mase’s “The Pill” was a sitcom, the Grandmother (portrayed by Amanda Bishop) would already have her own spinoff. I reviewed the first reading of Mase’s memory play earlier this year (here) and came back for an hour of the second reading last night at the Firehouse.
The first time round I was concentrating on the storyline: Sylvia (Winsome Brown) accidentally took her teenage daughter Leni’s (Zoe Wilson) antidepressant and had a major melt down, years later Leni, her brother Phillip, and her Grandparents try to reconstruct the day through different viewpoints. They all have their memories except for the Grandmother who holds greater stock on the games her mind plays upon her than on any shriveled thought process. She is a magnificent creation, a completely unique taking on everything from eating out to infidelity. As Amanda Bishop plays the role, the Grandmother makes hallucinations a game of marital disruption that revolves around a world vision that clashes with the reality around her, transforming it in ditzy charm: she is like a modern Gracie Allen. At first Amanda is the most charming of comic relief but after a while the effect is like a hall of mirror. Her granddaughter Leni has a different but tangential mental illness and the two together place the family drama into stark relief, like memory itself, a place where what is is not necessarily is.
Both Grandparents are mirror images of the children. Per the play construct, the son as a child, Little Phillip (Joshua Turchin) is not fully formed, he adheres to the aspect and the insecurities of childhood, but the son as an adult, Big Phillip (Adam Patterson) is the master of ceremonies and is not simply the master of ceremonies but the memory, and the voice, of reason. He is similar to his Grandfather, as played by Paul DeBoy the man is an emblem of balance and security: he isn’t rattled. I met the gentleman who the role is based upon, Dr. Howard Mase, before the reading, and I can attest how DeBoy channeled being so normal, DeBoy’s Doctor is almost out of step with the proceedings. It is a solid construct: the elders, the youngers, and Sylvia in the middle keeping it all together. Winsome Brown is new to the role of Sylvia and she provides a more forceful proposition; there is a tangled up sexuality in Brown’s take of the role more closely attuned to not Mase the mother, Mase the performance artist.
But Zoe Wilson’s Leni is the heart of the matter. I was so impressed the first time I saw the teenager as the disturbed child, I immediately asked if she could be in the commercial I am working on. The second time round, I found her performance not real as such but an intense stylization, she is one remove from the actors around her, everything is turned up a notch. From her opening monologue where she tells young Phillip a story about fairies (there are no male fairies) to a memory within a memory break down at Disneyworld, Zoe burns through the role. It is so good it is a problem, she effortlessly makes anorexia and self-mutilation (and suicide) cool, when it isn’t; it’s because she has the DNA of a rock star, it is like a mix of Halsey and Lana Del Rey –the charm and the horror of the horror in the horror of nothingness. Obviously, this is written into the script, but writing it and playing it is different. We see her through the eyes of Little Phillip –Joshua is very young to be so empathic an actor, we reflect on him as he attempts to get through it all without any serious damage to his psyche, with these strange role models compounded by a father who only shows up to have his washing done.
The play, conceived by Marla and written by her family, is strange and superrior, it takes you deep into the all strange families are damaged in different ways story and holds you in its over two hours of length, but, in an art form with no time for auteur theories, director Randolph Curtis Rand is more than just a traffic cop. It is odd that theatre directors, greats like Jerry Zak and Scott Ellis, are not quite known outside the community. Zaks just directed “Hello, Dolly!”, yet Bette Midler is the name on your lips. Julie Taymor is the center of a visual maelstrom and got fired from the Spiderman production. Randolph mentioned two things before the show. First, when (I don’t think anybody believes if any longer) it gets to the stage, he wants a pitch black stage, lit when actors speak…. You can just about see what he sees here. And two, he conjures Tennessee Williams “The Glass Menagerie” –another memory play with a mentally fragile center. Randolph doesn’t just see Mase’s vision, he sees inside Mase’s vision, he connects it back: gives it Proustian legend. Part tragicomedy , part hope through remembrance of things past, this is a big deal. I know you can’t see it yet but when you do, you’ll thank me for these cliff Notes.