Review: Oliver Sacks Adaptation THE MAN WHO at Spooky Action

By: May. 23, 2017
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Half the fun of going to see plays at Spooky Action Theatre is seeing how they've transformed the basement of the Universalist National Memorial Church for each production. Sometimes they completely obscure its identity; other times they embrace very nook. Theater seating is arranged accordingly (There are some productions where the audience is even led though the church).

For the current production of "The Man Who" by Peter Brook and Marie Helene Estienne, they've elegantly transformed the functional arches and corners of one institution, the church, to one of science, the hospital (It's not too far a stretch - the title of the theater company has to do with science's theories of quantum mechanics).

In the corridors of this hospieal, a series of doctors cheerfully and inquisitively test a series of patients with very specific neurological issues that separate them from the norm.

Inspired by Oliver Sacks' popular 1985 book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," it's not really a play, but more a collection of individual scenes. Some require a projection; most only require a table and chair.

The four actors taking part each play a series of patients and doctors with a transformation that requires the donning of a white lab coat.

Their mastery makes their roles as doctors more suitable than as patients, but everything they seem to do works well.

David Gaines, Carlos Saldana, Eva Whilelm and Tuyet Thi Pham are very strong. The latter in particular makes an impression when the stimulation of one part of the brain triggers vivid childhood memories otherwise blocked. Later in the production, she's in the middle of a very complicated scene - trying to make herself understood, though the word choices are all wrong, such that the scrambled addresses become more and more abstract - a fact that's unknown to her until it's taped and played back.

Gaines, in one scene, shaves one half of his face, seen on a monitor, but ignores the other, suggesting some kind of hemispheric disconnect. And then, of course, there is the man with severe visual agnosia, who cannot identify things by looking at them, hence misidentifying his wife for a hat.

In some cases, these unusual aspects of the brain are made less onerous by the adaptation to their malady - a blind man has adapted his intuition to the degree he can sense were objects are.

The sensitive treatments of these problems - 17 in all - are accompanied by an equally sensitive soundtrack by David Schulman and sour design by Gordon Nimmo-Smith, whose sounds accompany minor keystrokes on a computer to denote how special they actually can be.

Richard Heinrich's direction is as you would like your hospital - efficient, cheerful, but overall imbued with a humanity that reminds us that whatever people are going through, it is primarily due to their being human; how they deal with it will be as well.

And the people behind that set design, Giorgos Tsappas, with Mariana Fernandez as scenic artist, like the patients in the play, learn how to get the most out of what they have been given.

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

Photo credit: Eva Wilhelm an Carlos Saldana in 'The Man Who' at Spooky Action. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.

The Man Who by Spooky Action Theatre continues through June 4 at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St NW. Tickets available online.


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