Fully Committed

Apples and oranges: Peter Macon and Stephen Yoakam in Joe Penhall's 'Blue/Orange'
Michal Daniel

Had Sartre written an exit into No Exit, he might have produced something akin to Joe Penhall's Blue/Orange, a claustrophobic and relentlessly intense drama set in a static consultation room in a London mental hospital. We meet Christopher, late of the notorious White City, who's concluding a stay in custody after a psychotic episode. His doctor, Bruce, wants Christopher kept for more treatment. Bruce's superior, Dr. Smith, evoking the deities of budgets and bed space, thinks otherwise.

Sounds grim. But Blue/Orange makes its way across the Atlantic clutching an array of U.K. awards, and at the Guthrie Lab under the direction of Eye of the Storm vet Casey Stangl, it is a headlong rush at a passel of heady ideas, from the impact of oppression on the oppressed (here, specifically, the plight of the U.K.'s Afro-Caribbean population) to the utility of the very idea of normality.

On opening night, Blue/Orange's three-man cast attacked the drama with sufficient gusto to trample a number of small subtleties, but it's no small compliment to the production to note that the rapt audience found its loyalties constantly shifting from one character to the next. Amid a stark set--think vomitous green and anemic bleached wood--they attacked their roles and produced far more drama around a medical diagnosis than one would think possible.

Stephen Yoakam (Dr. Smith) stalked the consultation room with Mephistophelian pleasure, as patronizing and sardonic with his patient as with his subordinate. In Yoakam's hands, Smith is a warped patrician hipster, quoting Allen Ginsberg and French surrealists, invoking Lenny Bruce, smoking, suggestively licking his fingers after polishing off an orange. At first just another cutthroat administrator, he turns his talk to curing "black psychosis," and when he hijacks the language of liberal multiculturalism to advocate (semi-) benign neglect for his patients of color, we see the doctor himself is not free from a stripe of unhinged grandiosity.

During Dr. Smith's nighttime consultation with Christopher (Peter Macon), Yoakam evinces convincing psychic seduction and flip advice--We're all crazy! So what! Learn to laugh about it!--which Macon's Christopher absorbs with painful ambivalence. Here Penhall and the Guthrie players deftly subvert expectations: While Christopher is obviously sick, Smith counters that institutionalization will ruin the young man's future. Set him loose, Smith insists, it's for his own good. And how reasonable it seems.

As Christopher, Macon starts out jittery, sly, insinuating--the street absurdist half-humoring his doctor. But as his illness manifests, he unveils a startling catalogue of expressions: a smoky, suspicious glare; fleeting glimpses of warped joy; and a poignant resignation over the machinations of his doctors. During his dark night of the soul with Smith, he fixes Smith with a helpless stare and cries out, "You're a fucking doctor, man!"

Blue/Orange grants its players a mountain of verbiage to wind and expel, though a tough task is assigned to Lee Mark Nelson as Bruce. Nelson plays the guileless innocent and, while he's a deft straight man, a glimpse into Smith's interest in him might have tightened the production's logic. Bruce stews with indignity (and Nelson has one unforgettable meltdown), but at times in Act 2 the endeavor seemed in danger of devolving into a shouting contest. By this point, there was so much speedy energy on stage that crucial details passed in a blur. What did Bruce say at rugby to piss off Smith? What precise act of insanity got Christopher committed?

Yet to ask these able actors to pull back the throttle might well be a shame. They know how to let fly, and it's a pleasure to watch. Just hope you're better served than Christopher when your neighbors turn into brain-eating zombies, when you claim an evil dictator as your father, and when you take an erotic interest in citrus fruit.

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