Written and Directed by Enda Walsh
Produced in conjunction with Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 12.12.21
St. Ann's Warehouse, 45 Water Street
by Ran Xia on 11.20.21
Domhall Gleeson in Medicine. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
BOTTOM LINE: Medicine makes poetry out chaos, and chaos out of poetry, all in the name of answering the question: why are we here?
John Kane (Domhnall Gleeson) arrives at his own story like a fish out of water. He’s not sure how to begin, or where to put his hands. There’s too much chaos: balloons are scattered about, confetti abounds on a foldout table beneath a big banner that says “Congratulations”—your regular post-staff-party carnage in the recreation room of a psychiatric institution. And out of this mess, John is meant to spill out his life story—“the testimonial” he calls it—with the help of two actors named Mary (Aoife Duffin & Clare Barrett) and a nameless drummer (Seán Carpio). It takes what feels like hours for him to get started, and finally, out of an exterior that’s pathetically mundane erupts a cathartic despair of someone who’s buried whole galaxies within. It left me reeling. And it took what felt like days for me to recover from Medicine.
I’ve been a fan of Walsh’s work since Disco Pig. His disregard of reality and juxtaposition of the awkward with the poetic marks a unique style that I gravitate towards. His recent collaboration with composer Teho Teardo (who created a rich soundscape for Medicine as well as the previous Arlington, Ballyturk, and Grief is the Thing with Feathers) has resulted in an alchemical reaction of theatricality. Walsh no longer simply writes plays, for everything is now jazz—even with only spoken words, each performer becomes an instrument in a jazz suite where they constantly clash and harmonize.
Medicine is one of the few Walsh plays I’ve seen that’s actually set in a real place in real time. It has the elegance of poetic theatre but is enriched by the versatility of the performers and the ingenuity of the design, while being anchored in a backdrop that is at once concrete and surreal. AND it’s violently funny.
The set-up is simple: John goes through a process that resembles play therapy by telling the story of his life. His words are accompanied, and his emotions accentuated, by a drummer, while Mary 1 and Mary 2 enact all the characters in John’s life by lip-syncing to voiceover recordings: his parents, childhood friends (well, bullies), as well as the girl who lived across the street (he had a crush on her) all appear in a highly dramatized version, almost caricature-like. We start at John’s birth and go through every detail of—
“There’s nothing of great consequence for the next 4 or 5 pages,” Mary 2 interrupts John, flipping through the manuscript. Except in the grand scheme of things, between where any of us came from and where any of us end up, nothing is of any great consequence, and John, much like all of Walsh’s other protagonists, is a man of no importance. Then again, who are we to say what is important and what isn’t?
According to the creator’s note, Brendan Kelly’s Hearing Voices, which addresses psychiatry in Ireland, was a key influence. Medicine offers a glimpse into the way we perceive and treat those deemed “mentally ill.” As someone who’s spent a lot of time in both fields (I came into theatre-making by way of psychology), there are a lot of similarities. In both, one goal is to better understand human nature. And both are characterized by a combination of abundant structure and rules with a total lack of predictability.
And I supposed that’s why the Jazz (with that capital J) style works so well with Medicine: it’s chaos from the get-go, and I’m along for the ride. I was hooked from the moment Mary 1 shook off her pair of old-man gloves, and Mary 2 appeared in the annex room in a lobster suit. For the two musical theatre actors (Mary 1 is in a Les Mis T-shirt, while Mary 2 wears Wicked), this is just another gig. As they usher us in and out of John’s inner world and the cold fluorescent environment, I begin to feel confronted with the same degree of loneliness John is experiencing in real time. And living in the age of isolation, that feels like a gut punch.
“What’s our purpose here?” the actors ask, a repeated query that increasingly blurs the lines so that it’s unclear whether they’re talking about storytelling or psychiatry. “People in our profession don’t have other lives,” says Mary 1. “Everything we do here is a love story,” says Mary 2. Are these the words of mental health professionals, or actors? And as we watch John become increasingly untethered (which Gleeson portrays in such a way that makes him piteously sympathetic), I can’t help but ask: as a theatre artist, or a mental health professional, where’s the line between exploiting trauma and healing?
Enda Walsh ends Medicine with a moment of hope. It’s an exhale, after the previous 90 minutes took my breath away completely. I am grateful to have experienced Medicine, because not only is it an extraordinarily crafted production, it also illuminates the important role an active audience plays in the process of live storytelling. What are we doing here, really? I still don’t have a good answer to the question.
(Medicine plays at St. Ann's Warehouse, 45 Water Street, through Dec 12, 2021. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Proof of vaccination and masks required. Performances are Tuesdays at 7; Wednesdays at 2 and 7; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $20 and are available at stannswarehouse.org or by calling 718-254-8779.)
Medicine is written and directed by Enda Walsh. Set Design by Jamie Vartan. Lighting Design by Adam Silverman. Music by Teho Teardo. Costume Design by Joan O'Clery. Sound Design by Helen Atkinson.
The cast is Domhnall Gleeson, Clare Barrett, Aoife Duffin, with percussionist Seán Carpio. Also featuring the recorded voices of Cathy Belton, Zara Devlin, Seán McGinley, Aaron Monaghan, Mikel Murfi, Tadhg Murphy, and Marty Rea.