Thursday, April 7, 2011

Finding Artistic Inspiration in Mental Illness

As a person gets older, he encounters increasing problems with short-term memory loss. This can range from something as simple as forgetting where he left his keys to forgetting where he parked his car. Many a fictional narrative has featured a character battling some kind of trauma-induced amnesia.

In 1987 Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell starred in Overboard, a farce in which a snotty debutante falls off her yacht and develops amnesia. The man who eventually takes her home from the hospital is the contractor whom she refused to pay for his work, a redneck single father with four hyperactive young boys. In the following trailer, you can witness the sudden change in Joanna's lifestyle.

In May 1990, the Portland Opera presented the world premiere of a challenging new musical drama. Meg Bussert starred in Christopher Drobny's opera, Lucy's Lapses, about a woman who knew she was losing her mind to Alzheimer's and had to find a way to kill herself while she could still think straight. Although the piece had some comic moments, the music slowed down a lot of the fun.

In 2004, 50 First Dates starred Adam Sandler as a veterinarian on the prowl and Drew Barrymore as the pretty young amnesiac with whom he falls in love. The following trailer gives a pretty good indication of how the writers used Lucy's anterograde amnesia (the inability to create new memories after an event has caused amnesia) as a continued source of comedy and pathos.

While memory loss can offer lots of convenient gags to a screenwriter, using amnesia as the focus of a stage farce is decidedly more difficult. There are certain kinds of memory loss -- most often caused by love potions -- which work fine for William Shakespeare's romantic comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream (first published in 1600) and Gaetano Donizetti's 1832 opera, Elixir of Love.

Making mental illness work in modern comedy before a live audience is, in some ways, far more difficult these days. This is largely due to the fact that the audience knows a lot more about Alzheimer's disease and what a stroke can do to a person's ability to communicate. The fact that David Lindsay-Abaire has succeeded so beautifully is testament not only to his strengths as a writer, but the skill of every director and actor to tackle this absurdist farce.

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Currently onstage at the Marin Theatre Company, Lindsay-Abaire's 1999 hit comedy, Fuddy Meers, is doing a solid job of keeping the audience rolling with laughter. Directed by Ryan Rilette, the complex plot covers one day in the life of Claire (Mollie Stickney), a pretty young woman suffering from anterograde amnesia. Because Claire starts each day with her mind essentially a blank slate, her husband, Richard (Andrew Hurteau), has prepared a reference book for her which lists answers to most of the questions she will ask during the course of each "new" day.

Richard (Andrew Hurteau) tries to help Claire (Mollie Stickney)
remember that she's his wife in Fuddy Meers.
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Much to her surprise, Claire learns every day that she has a son named Kenny (Sam Leichter), who is a confused and fairly sullen teenager. She also has a mother named Gertie (Joan Mankin) who, having suffered a stroke, has trouble communicating with people because her aphasia twists her words upside down and inside out.

Millet (Lance Gardner) and Gertie (Joan Mankin)
fight it out in Fuddy Meers (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

On this particular day, Claire is visited by her ex-husband Zachary(Tim True) who, in addition to having a severe lisp, is blind in his right eye, has a grossly deformed right ear, and suffers from an intense fear of bacon. Along with his dimwitted friend and partner in crime, Millet (Lance Gardner), Zachary is hoping to cross the border into Canada with his current girlfriend, Heidi (Dena Martinez), and Claire (who he claims is his sister).

Claire (Mollie Stickney) tries to reason with Hinky Binky (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Although the play may revolve around Claire's mental illness, two actors in supporting roles (Lance Gardner as Millet and Joan Mankin as Gertie) steal the show. Between Gertie's aphasia and Millet's heated arguments with a hand puppet named Hinky Binky, there are many frantic moments to enjoy during Fuddy Meers. There's also a loaded gun.

To say any more would ruin the juicy surprises in David Lindsay-Abaire's magnificently structured farce, which continues at the Marin Theatre Company through April 24 (you can order tickets here).  In the meantime, enjoy the show's trailer:

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While people with amnesia may have lost part or all of their memory, the flip side of the equation involves those who have been deprived of familial memories through no fault of their own.  A haunting short film that will be screened at the the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival entitled Library of Dust is well worth your attention.

Based on  photographer David Maisel's book, Library of Dust, it describes the fate that befell the "lost" family members who were psychiatric patients at the Oregon State Hospital (the mental facility where One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was filmed). In the following clip, Maisel explains how learning about the eroding copper tins in which patients' cremains were stored became an artistic project for him.

While many Americans fear death and might worry that a film about the ashes of unknown dead people would be too strange for them to watch, Library of Dust is a deeply moving short that shows how far we've come in our understanding of mental illness.  Here's the trailer:

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