Blue/Orange is a brilliant, electrifying examination of human relationships.
Thursday, March 4, 2004
On opening night of Blue/Orange last Thursday at the Circle Theater, director Lamont Johnson addressed the audience before curtain. He explained that “anti-production weather” had knocked out power the previous Tuesday, and efforts to run through the play the past two evenings by the light of two dim flashlights had been useless. Subsequently, they were opening without benefit of dress rehearsal or preview.
In other words, Blue/Orange was opening cold.
Fortunately, the cast included two veteran Equity actors, Gregory Cooke and Christopher Marshall, in the roles of the psychiatrists. Still, sustaining the play’s intense, pace-driven dialogue through three acts without those final rehearsals was going to be challenging.
The real pressure, however, lay squarely on Armando McClain, a talented young Julliard candidate currently attending Chabot Junior College in Hayward. The role of Christopher, a black patient in a psych ward, marks McClain’s first appearance at Pac Rep and may be the most important of his brief career.
So when Johnson boldly concluded his pre-show disclaimer, proclaiming, “But this is not a preview, this is opening night,” the audience cheered, the lights went down, and my eyes sought the murky pre-curtain darkness for McClain.
But when the lights came back up and this entrancing, brilliant and ultimately anguishing play began, neither McClain’s, nor Cooke’s or Marshall’s seamless performances showed any negative effect from the lack of rehearsal. In spite of a two-day power outage, Blue/Orange’s opening was electric.
Joe Penhall’s play won the London Critics‚ Circle, Evening Standard and Olivier Awards in 2000, an impressive list. It deftly handles a number of big themes. Capturing the essence of our fatal flaws as humans, its exasperating conflict gives us an appreciation for the machinations of war, bi-partisan politics, divorce, violence and murder. It is a portrait of how hierarchy, pride and pettiness inflate arguments into battles.
Blue/Orange opens with a doctor and his young black patient sitting in a London mental institution. The patient, Christopher, has been under observation for 28 days and is due to be released the next day.
The question at the center of the play is whether he is ready to re-enter society. The young doctor believes Christopher is a paranoid schizophrenic in need of further institutionalization, but to be sure, he invites his mentor and superior to observe the patient before any decision is made.
The young physician’s mentor, an older, jaded consultant, enters the room sipping coffee. In a telling moment, he turns his back to Christopher and jabbers with his protégé for a few minutes before acknowledging the patient.
It’s immediately clear that the older consultant has made up his mind before entering the room. He’s decided that Christopher’s borderline personality disorder is a minor condition exacerbated by “institutional racism” and ethnocentric diagnoses. It’s an opinion based on personal “pet” research and provides the catalyst for Blue/Orange’s increasingly disturbing and raw conflict.
Confronted with the younger doctor’s ever more frustrated counter-arguments, the older doctor resorts to glib literary theories, childish retorts and naked displays of rank intimidation. When, in the first act, he tells the young doctor, “It’s semantics and right now my semantics are better than yours,” it’s his first admission that the patient is no longer the issue—pride is the issue.
Cooke is wonderful as the flip, egotistical, and insecure older consultant. His frustrated attempts to cajole, threaten and then mollify his young protégé are delightfully nuanced and frequently nauseating.
Marshall plays the young doctor masterfully. His depiction of a hotheaded man caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of integrity and self-preservation is exhilarating and painful to watch. Penhall’s brilliant script sets the noose around his neck early, but doesn’t yank the trapdoor for three tantalizing acts.
Finally, McClain handles the difficult role of Christopher with a deft hand. His attention to detail as a mad black “punter” out of London’s Shepherd’s Bush neighborhood is impressive. He handles both the illness and the cultural elements of his character extremely well. It’s a role that could have been easily overdone, but McClain shows great control and intensity.
The ending of Blue/Orange leaves the audience with a sense of gut-wrenching futility, not just as concerns the doctors and Christopher, but the human race in general. Tremendously written, acted and directed, this is potent stuff, and like the “anti-production weather” that prevented final rehearsals, it leaves one feeling powerless.
Blue/Orange continues at the Circle Theater in Carmel through March 21. 622-0100.