A mental patient (Ron Choularton) gazes back at a product of the technology that's supposed to help him.The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a book title and a 20th-century catchphrase. Even if you don't know what the book's about, you've probably caught on to the title's Seuss-like feel somewhere along the way. But neurologist Oliver Sacks' 1985 bestseller is truer to life than all that. The book, a collection of psychiatric case histories, includes a story about a guy who mistook that very thing for that very thing. He suffered from visual agnosia, or the inability to recognize familiar objects or faces.
The brain may be the ultimate human mystery, but some patients' mental and emotional wiring make that mystery all the more complex. A staging on the subject calls for highly stylized, almost over-the-top acting and tech treatments to reflect that complexity—and that's where New Village Arts comes in. Its current The Man Who, a Sacks-inspired play by the great Sir Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, features all the right elements as it delivers theater's take on neurological impairment and the people affected by it. The set work and accompanist Scott Paulson's bells and whistles help a compelling play morph into an excellent piece of stagecraft.
Four actors (Ron Choularton, Manny Fernandes, Walter Murray and Sandra Ellis-Troy) swap roles as doctors and patients in the 18 vignettes. Their topics range from the familiar Tourette's syndrome to the exceedingly rare aproprioception, or loss of sensation of one's otherwise normally functioning body. The symptoms are as wide-ranging as the topics, which means director Kristianne Kurner has a ton of affectations to choose from—and the actors take it from there. Watch a lobotomy candidate (Choularton) tense his arm, then his body, as the circle he's asked to draw dissolves into a furious battle with his pen (after which he doesn't bat an eye). See another patient (Ellis-Troy) demonstrate something called blindsight, wherein a blind woman successfully reaches for an object by “predicting” its position. Ellis-Troy is outstanding in this installment—her deliberate, painstaking steps into the doctor's office are the stuff of the finest musical choreography.
This due diligence is also an inseparable part of the show's tech climate as developed by set designer Tim Wallace. A large monitor sits over the set's milk-white backdrop, its fare ranging from drawings of the brain (some bare-bones, some fairly sophisticated) to real-time images of the action, in black and white and captured at different angles. We thus see the play from both the patients' and doctors' points of view. The technique is striking, fueling our sympathy with the patients' misfortunes. And where Wallace excels, Paulson transcends. His live original score and sound design bends and breaks with the action in some of the show's most eloquent commentary. Paulson is a priceless fixture in San Diego theater; his embellishments are a vital link between a playwright and his intent.
This one-act show runs only about 75 minutes—any longer, and it might have looked like a neurology trade show. As it is, it's a captivating look at mental phenomena that the theater, ever the opportunist, is almost obliged to provide. This review is based on the opening-night performance of Feb. 6. The Man Who runs through Feb. 28 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $22-$30. www.newvillagearts.org. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.