Theatre of the Reconstruction

Though at times it’s funny, Fyt isn’t fun. Set in an institution for the criminally insane, the play disturbs without providing any kind of cathartic resolution. Its best feature is playwright Scott Turner’s unique and compassionate approximation of a mentally ill mind, which he achieves by placing the action in three “realities”: the institutionalized life of two murderers, Joe and Reyes; the world of Joe’s memories; and the world of Joe’s violent fantasies.

In this, Turner’s fifth production with Theatre of the Reconstruction, he takes some well-placed jabs at the psychiatric community by juxtaposing psychiatric interrogations with Joe’s memories of molestation and emotional manipulation and with his alternate reality, in which he literally fights to stay alive. One doctor places a lot of weight on childhood bonds, asking the murderers: “What color do you associate with your mother?” Another is certain that behavioral deviations can be explained and controlled by diet: “What did you eat before the murder?” he asks. The doctors in Fyt would seem simply ineffectual buffoons if they weren’t also cruel, threatening uncooperative patients with heavy sedation.

In self-defense Joe withdraws, or “turns inside himself,” to a world where he fights off guards with lead pipes. He also retreats to his equally unpleasant childhood memories. We see the 13-year-old Joe enter into a parasitic relationship with the older Mr. Hansen, who threatens to kill himself if Joe ever leaves him. But whether Joe’s inhabiting the hospital, his fight world, or his past, he’s equally imprisoned, emotionally or physically.

Turner rightly suggests that doctors have only limited power to reach or help the mentally ill, but that premise is weakened by his overdrawn portraits of doctors who are bumbling and outright mean. When the chief doctor decides at one stroke to sedate both the rambunctious Reyes and Joe, who is already nearly catatonic, we laugh because we believe such capricious exercises of power and poor judgment exist. But when the same doctor threatens to sedate Reyes for the rest of his life, it’s too cruel to be believable or funny. Also unfunny is Turner’s adolescent humor in a morgue scene in which a coroner makes fun of a corpse, holding up his soiled underwear and saying “The tight ass of life always lets go in the final moment.” It may provide a scatological thrill for some, but it doesn’t seem to fit any of Turner’s established realities.

Similar distractions throughout the play are especially irritating in retrospect, when we see Turner has given so little time to the one potentially intriguing character: Reyes, the rebellious, streetwise inmate. When he finally consents to undergo therapy, Reyes reveals himself to be a master of manipulation, a man who kept an entire family under his thumb by threatening to kill the children. When they evicted him, he killed the six-year-old boy “because I said I would.” Turner uncovers a genuinely fresh character in Reyes but leaves his potential untapped.

Director Charles Pike handles Turner’s highly sensitive material very well. When Joe’s memories take him back to Hansen’s pleas for physical comfort, narrators upstage half-disgustedly describe the fellatio Joe performed. Rather than going for the shock value of a physical reenactment, Pike draws a vivid picture of Joe’s vulnerability with a disconcerting verbal play-by-play.

The onstage fight scenes work well with an audience numbed by screen violence. The effortful clanking of metal weapons makes us more uncomfortable than titillated, as we might be if we were watching the same violence at a safe distance, on television or in the movies. Frank Nall and Joe Dempsey’s fight choreography may seem even more frightening because, with the exception of fight captain Carlos Tamayo (who plays Reyes), the actors don’t seem in complete control of their heavy weapons.

Pike’s rudimentary light design effectively moves from reality to fantasy and back–the harsh, concentrated light of the hospital contrasting with the diffused lighting of Joe’s fight world. A round, tilted platform upstage (designed by James Thoresen) is the center of most of the story telling, with plenty of room downstage for combat. We’re so close to the fighting as to feel threatened, but our physical distance from the rest of the set–which heightens the cold, clinical feeling of the hospital–at times increases our emotional distance from the story.

To his credit, Mark Hanks as Joe seems merely the medium through which Joe’s story unfolds. He adopts whiny, childish tones as the guileless 13-year-old, and doesn’t quite lose that simpleminded sound as the enraged 17-year-old who kills Hansen. Where Hanks disappears into Joe, Tamayo–in his stage debut as Reyes–is downright charismatic. Admittedly Tamayo has more to work with, because Reyes is less a puppet of circumstance than Joe. He’s the one character perfectly capable of walking offstage and into reality.

Fyt is a strange and interesting mix of characters and caricatures, of poignancy and crudeness. A more disciplined approach would have produced a more cohesive play, but Fyt remains an engaging, highly individual treatment of a subject that warrants the attention.