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Lab Rat: Of Mice and Übermensch

Flowers for Algernon

Josh Breslow, Daniel N. Durant, and Hillary Baack

Flowers for Agernon Theatre Review

This is the second time this weekend I wished to see a play that is based on the same source material as two of my favorite 1968 films I originally saw when I was a boy were derived from. The theatrical version of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter that’s currently on the boards at the Sierra Madre Playhouse is a worthy successor to the throne, so to speak. On the other hand, Deaf West Theatre’s production of David Rogers’ play Flowers for Algernon only suffers in comparison with Cliff Robertson’s incomparable, memorable, Oscar winning performance in the movie Charly which, like Rogers’ play, was based on Daniel Keyes’ 1966 novel. (It, in turn, grew out of Keyes’ 1959 short story also entitled Flowers for Algernon,the source for a 1961 televised version called The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, which likewise starred Robertson, whose last role was as Spidey’s Uncle Ben in 2007’s Spider-Man 3.)

At some time during DWT’s lengthy, rather tiresome Algernon it finally dawned upon your benighted reviewer that he should just forget about Charly. So -- to paraphrase Dr. Strangelove -- I learned to stop worrying and if not love, simply accept this ASL-signed/spoken word production on its own convoluted terms. Keyes’ story has a great premise with a sci fi twist:

Charlie is a mentally disabled menial worker with an IQ of 68. Although the bakery worker is more or less content with his lot, Charlie buys into the notion that if only he was “smart,” his life would be much better and he’d be far more popular. So the 30-something man who has what used to be called in less politically correct times “mental retardation” volunteers for a high-tech experiment to raise his intellect.

flowers for algernon

Charles Katz, Daniel N Durant, and Sean Eaton

Scientists eager to win endowments and prestige submit the dim-witted if good-natured, trusting Charlie to an operation that they have previously conducted on a white mouse named Algernon (played with panache by Cherry Snowdrop), whose performance has been greatly boosted -- so far -- by the not-so-good doctors’ complex surgical procedure. When Charlie’s intelligence zooms and surpasses Einstein’s and he becomes a Nietzschean übermensch, all hell breaks loose.

The astute reader will observe that aside from Algernon (who is indeed played by an actual live mouse) I haven’t provided any of the cast’s credits yet. That’s because like everything else in this complex show directed by Matthew McCray this is a complicated matter. Daniel N. Durant, who majored in theater at Gallaudet University, plays Charlie before and after the surgery that propels him to superman stature. However, Sean Eaton incarnates the young, pre-op Charlie, while Josh Breslow plays post-op Charles as an adult. They are onstage the same times as Durant giving voice to Charlie, speaking his lines, as Durant usually communicates dialogue via the use of American Sign Language (and, to be fair, with heartfelt, expressive acting). Sometimes all three of Charlie’s selves appear on the boards at the same time, and while this indicates that Charlie is divided within himself, it can get quite confusing (and crowded!) and reminded me of Jimmy Durante’s admonition: “Everybody wants to get into the act.”

Adding to this production’s byzantine nature, which is a bit like the mazes Algernon traverses, is the constant use of screen or scrims, upon which various images and supertitles are projected. These include images from the dreams of Charlie, whose previously dormant unconscious has been ignited by the experiment, stirring up a host of tormenting repressed memories. While the screens seemed innovative in Act I, by the second, long drawn out act they had outworn their welcome and become wearisome. (For those who may accuse this critic of being unfair to a non-hearing production I hasten to add that the signing during Deaf West Theatre’s stellar production of Big River around eight or so years ago only served to enhance that play’s presentation by adding visualizations to Roger Miller’s score, so Algernon’s intellectual clutter is another, separate matter altogether. )

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As with the three Charlies, every actor has multiple roles, except for Hillary Baack (that is, if you don’t include Cherry Snowdrop), who rather naturalistically plays Alice, Charlie’s sensitive, concerned teacher who goes on to have extracurricular activities with her onetime pupil which some might consider to be inappropriate. Overall the acting is well executed and directed, and although relegated to the background Karla Gutierrez is quite lovely in her four parts. Hopefully auds will get to see her front and center stage some time soon.

Flower-for-Algernon_5

In terms of dual parts, it’s an uncanny bit of casting to have Bruce Katzman (whose credits range from Broadway to TV’s Scandal and Californication) portray both Charlie’s father and the blithe, lead experimenter, Dr. Nemur. His name is suggestive of another mad scientist, Captain Nemo, from Jules Verne’s science fiction classics, including 1874’s The Mysterious Island. Similarly, Charles Katz cleverly plays both Dr. Strauss and Charlie’s bakery tormentor, Frank.

As I recall Stirling Silliphant’s screenplay for Charly shrewdly honed and zoned in on the emotional elements of Charlie’s odyssey from “moron” to übermensch. And Durant, with boyish Eaton in tow, is most touching as the mentally disabled but well-meaning man-child before he’s in the Promised Land. Perhaps this is because it is the nature of compassion to be most moved by “the least of these among us.”

But DWT’s cautionary tale that’s a sort of 21st century version of Mary Shelley’s 1818 sci fi masterpiece Frankenstein takes too intellectual an approach. With all of the multiple characters and screens for so long (you’re in it for the duration, as this epic is about two and half hours, with only one intermission) the theatergoer’s intellect may become -- well -- Charlie-horsed trying to absorb and take it all in. One may need to undergo the operation Charlie does to attain the mental capacity to understand everything. As Charlie himself might have put it: “I’m only human!"

(Which reminds me: Cherry Snowdrop does not deliver a Mickey Mouse performance. This adorable rodent, who may use the “Meisner Mouse Method,” plays his/her part perfectly, never missing a beat or a cue. And, to the sheer delight of most playwrights, Cherry strictly sticks to the script and never ad libs a squeak.)

However, having said all this, those who are brainier than this reviewer and who are particularly interested in the issue of “disability versus difference” will probably enjoy Deaf West’s production of this thought-provoking play that, among other things, shows that being smart ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. There’s more here than meets the “ear,” so be careful what you wish for!

Deaf West Theatre’s production of Flowers for Algernon is being performed through Nov. 3 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, CA 91423. Every Thursday night at 7:30 a half hour ASL workshop that teaches the signs used in the play is presented. For more info: (818)762-2998 or www.deafwest.org.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

Monday, 30 September 2013