SONGS FROM BEDLAM: Tu Es Fou
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The Firehouse Theatre, 1609 W. Broad Street, RVA 23220
Performances: October 18 – November 4, 2018; Daily Planet Health Services benefit w/ post show talkback on October 28 and Friends 4 Recovery benefit w/ post show talkback on November 4
Ticket Prices: $15 – $30
Info: (804) 355-2001 or firehousetheatre.org
Songs From Bedlam is a new production of Richmond playwright Douglas Jones’ play that gives voice to the insane, the homeless, the alcoholic, and the overlooked. First produced by Barksdale Theatre (now VirginiaRep) in 2003, the script has been revised, the direction has been placed in the hands of Todd LaBelle, Jr. who allows the characters to unfold naturally and unadorned, and the actors are placed on display in a three-dimensional, interactive box designed by Chris Raintree.
And I use the phrase “placed on display” quite deliberately. The characters are placed on display like fish in an aquarium, like animals in a zoo, like freaks in a sideshow, like the conjoined twins and women from Africa who were considered curiosities during the World’s Fair. In a way, it appeals to our baser instincts, yet it is hard to look away. At times, I felt that by sitting in the audience, we had stolen the final shreds of dignity and privacy that these poor people had. Songs From Bedlam is compelling and brutal, and meant more for discussion and introspection than entertainment.
LaBelle has a strong ensemble to work with: Axle Burtness, Claire M. Gates, Irene J. Kuykendall, Jonathan Hardison, Granville Scott, and Linda Snyder fill the generic roles of nameless characters identified only as Young Man, Young Woman, Woman, Man, Old Man, and Old Woman.
Burtness, for instance, portrays an affable but obsessed man who is driven to visit the aquarium every day and stare at the same exhibit, while Kuykendall tells the compelling story of a prostitute who killed a client who violated her one rule, “don’t kiss me.” Later she tells the heartrending story of a woman who could not let go of her dead baby and Gates uses sign language for her monologue because her character has cut out her own tongue. Snyder’s character speaks of childhood abuse and Scott’s alcoholic character is, perhaps, the most familiar – sort of like the philosophical alcoholic uncle at the family reunion.
The set has a top, and the back wall has panels that slide out to provide walls and benches, but the front and sides are open, and a handful of audience members were invited to sit onstage, in observer seats provided for that purpose – a reminder that Elizabethans in the 16th century would pay a fee to visit Bethlehem Hospital, from which Bedlam got its name, and watch the “lunatickes.” There are also some interesting lighting effects by Andrew Bonniwell, especially at the beginning when Burtness is inside the aquarium. This is, indeed, an innovative format, and an all-encompassing environment, but the historical precedent and subject matter are somewhat distasteful, and this is theater that deliberately and bravely sets out to discomfort rather than entertain its audience.
The characters are costumed in plain, off-white scrubs, like prison uniforms, which Nic Charlie Perez has decorated with words and pictures that are significant to each character. Burtness, for instance, wears eyes and Snyder has the image of the Virgin Mary and the words “you are my angel” and “smack.” Hardison’s top bears the words “silly fellow” while Kuykendall sports the warning “do not kiss me.”
For all its harshness, Songs From Bedlam is filled with beautiful, poetic language. Jones has a way with words, and in addition to the sign language (which I thought went on too long without interpretation or at least captioning), there are liberal sprinklings of French, Spanish, and Latin, all enhanced by Ryan Dygert’s subtle sound design that includes echoes and whispers as well as music, including some original music composed by Kelly Kennedy.
For this production, the Firehouse Theatre is partnering with community organizations, the Daily Planet Health Services and Friends 4 Recovery Whole Health Center, with talkbacks and receptions for the October 28 and November 4 productions. There is also a related PhotoVoice exhibit in the lobby. The post show talkbacks should prove to be interesting, as the serious, real life, depressing nature of this subject matter is not the usual subject matter of an evening of theater. Do not go to Songs of Bedlam expecting a musical.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Tom Topinka