RIDING THE DOLPHIN
Griffin Theatre Company
at Strawdog Theatre Company
Insanity comes in many forms. If you like it claustrophobic, sticky, and macabre, check out the Defiant Theatre’s delirious production of a new play by Darren Critz, The Quarantine. But if you’re in the mood for a more sensitive, gently comic examination of schizophrenia, you might try William Massolia’s adaptation of Amanda Thomas’s novel Riding the Dolphin at Griffin Theatre. Both scripts have their flaws, and both occasionally get bogged down in explanations of irrational behavior, but they also include strong points of view and some very powerful performances.
Riding the Dolphin gives us a young schizophrenic named Tiffani who is hyperaware of her condition and the absurdities of her own behavior but often powerless to do anything about them. Her real name is Mary Alice, a name she rejects because “names are just a label–they obscure the real person.” Yet when she finds herself in a group home for the mentally ill, the occupants introduce themselves by giving their illnesses rather than their names. This group, a sort of alternative family for Tiffani, attempts to function normally in a residential neighborhood that looks on them as a collection of undesirable diseases rather than as individuals coping in eccentric ways.
Riding the Dolphin is precious at times–Tiffani proves to be a most sagacious psychotic, especially compared to her twitching housemates. But overall her journey is absorbing, and director Richard Barletta steers the large, dependable cast through an examination of what lies beyond the cliches.
Schizophrenia does not mean split personality–though it’s often confused with multiple-personality disorders. It’s a withdrawal from reality often accompanied by inappropriate emotional responses and disturbed thought processes. Tiffani lives in what seems a constant dream state, in which trivial details become terrifying obstacles. Wise and likable as she is, she still gets trapped in inept logic when she tries to explain an emergency situation to an impatient doctor. Her ensuing frenzy seems out of place until we’re allowed into her mind to discover the hallucinations going on there–white-cloaked figures fire the doctor’s questions at her too fast for her to follow.
As Tiffani, Sara Devlin wisely downplays the fidgeting that usually passes for mental illness onstage. She gives us instead a woman who is ferociously focused, either listening to something the rest of us can’t hear or desperately trying to ignore it. It’s refreshing to see an actress refrain from indulging in a character’s insanity, concentrating instead on her struggle to appear normal. As the threat of homelessness looms, it’s too easy to picture Tiffani on the streets, degenerating into a classic bag lady. She and her fellow patients seem terribly small and vulnerable on Alan Donahue’s large, nearly barren set.
Bryan Diver’s unsettling, cluttered set for The Quarantine bears close inspection. Despite the mound of dirty dishes in the sink the kitchen seems innocuous enough, if a little crowded. The back wall of a boy’s bedroom, with its shelves of toys and collages of comic-book characters, is unremarkable at first. Then you notice the bad taxidermy job on the large, decaying dog propped up on one of the shelves. The cookie monster seems to be devouring a hapless teddy bear. Someone has whited out the eyes on a poster of the Fonz so that Henry Winkler’s toothy grin is demonic.
This is Dennis’s room. We’re not quite sure what’s wrong with Dennis, and we never do find out, not really. Where Riding the Dolphin attempts to explain insanity, The Quarantine is at its best when it simply reflects it.
Dennis is a hollow-eyed behemoth who eschews silverware and eats cereal and raw meat for breakfast. His scalp is bare in patches where it looks as though he’s torn his hair out, and he wears filthy long johns and keeps a Dennis look-alike doll tied to his wrist with a long cord. His mother and his sister, no less insane but cleaner, insist that Dennis is mute. “If you hear him speak, just remind yourself that you’re probably imagining it,” the mother tells Snyder, a visiting psychiatrist. When Snyder is forced to bunk down for the night in Dennis’s bed, you can bet the disturbed boy speaks during the ensuing blackout, and it’s a pretty terrifying experience, for Snyder and the audience.
The Defiant Theatre has come up with some splendidly gruesome, darkly comic stage images to fuel Critz’s uneven script; and the company keeps the images coming so fast and thick that the play’s flaws seem almost inconsequential. This story of a mother who barricades her mentally unbalanced family from the rest of the world in order to keep the airborne disease of insanity from spreading is full of forced plot twists, and the second act contains an unfortunate attempt to explain away all of the inexplicable behavior. But the play also boasts a diabolical sense of humor, and the ensemble will stop at nothing to shock, sicken, amuse, and intrigue.
Closeted with this family from hell, Snyder predictably feels his own grip on sanity loosening. Dennis terrorizes him mercilessly with drool and power drill. “He just doesn’t know how to deal with people,” sister Laura explains. Perhaps he’s schizophrenic, like Tiffani in the Griffin production, but here cannibalism, sodomy, dismemberment, and tap dancing are part of the package. It’s pure sick pleasure to watch Nick Offerman as the hapless Snyder endure a grab bag of horrors, only to lose it when the family keeps changing the rules in a game of Monopoly. And Richard Ragsdale’s Dennis is a delightfully repulsive, fiercely charismatic lunatic worthy of a cult following.
Gruesome as this production is, Defiant is not just another company content to spew personal juices over one another and call it theater. Irreverence here does not include a disdain for discipline. Director Joe Foust and his ensemble come through with some finely controlled comic performances: Ragsdale’s dementia is never sloppy, and Offerman’s confusion builds to outright panic in a classically satisfying manner. The two men are supported admirably by Margaret Kusterman as the chirpy but malevolent mom and Stephanie Manglaras as Dennis’s nymphomaniac sister. The Defiant Theatre is clearly a company to keep an eye on.