Pretty Mess 

Ms. Bipolar sets new highs and lows for Our Own Voice.

When I first heard that Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe was holding writing workshops to develop a play called Ms. Bipolar: A Pageant, I got excited. Our Own Voice is a fantastic nonprofit company of artists who, since 1991, have been working to empower people marginalized by mental illness. Our Own Voice likes to skewer media constructs while demystifying mental illness, so a bipolar beauty pageant sounded like a rich vein of crazy waiting to be transformed into something unexpected.

But now, after all that initial excitement, I'm feeling a little low, because, in spite of some occasionally inspired bon mots and a handful of over-the-top performances, Ms. Bipolar misses both of its targets. I left the theater knowing no more about bipolar disorder than I did when I walked through the door, and I seriously wondered if anybody on the creative team had ever actually witnessed any sort of pageant firsthand.

The Ms. Bipolar Pageant — where men and women compete side by side — is vaguely reminiscent of reality TV programming with just a dash of Jerry Springer tossed in to keep things trashy. There are no sashes, no swimsuits, no nosebleed-inducing high heels. There are no media-generated images of beauty and perfection. There's only a handful of even-keeled contestants with a few nicely written but incomplete stories about living with bipolar disorder and a panel of three eccentric judges representing three distinct ways of assessing the condition. There is also a stereotypical host, a stereotypical stage manager, and a stereotypical TV exec who think infantile bickering is the basic building block of good television. None of it is ever developed.

Generally, the judges here seem more troubled than the contestants. Khyber Daniel plays Ambrose Coward, a haughty poet dangerously inclined to romanticize the illness. By his estimation, bipolar disorder is less a condition to be monitored than a gift to be cultivated. He is joined by red-haired bartender extraordinaire Jo Chetter as Davina Redbone, a larger-than-life New Ager and proponent of holistic healing, and Dr. Fredric Kazinski, a self-overestimating pill-pusher played by a glaring and intense Christopher Hulett. This trio's intramural bickering is the closest this large cast comes to ensemble acting.

Our Own Voice is an inclusive company with a wide-open casting policy. Ensembles are often multiracial and multigenerational, with older and younger actors cast effectively in what other theaters might consider age-inappropriate roles.

Likewise, some are actors coping with a variety of mental illnesses and performing alongside "normals." Theatergoers who go in expecting fancy sets and polished, traditional acting styles are bound to be as disappointed as the couple that sat behind me and walked out 15 minutes into the show. Frankly, I was a little envious, since the opening of the play was unfocused and the overarching narrative was disjointed. But, as usual, I was glad I stuck around.

Ms. Bipolar may have been 45 minutes of good theater spread across two hours, but the excesses were justified by a comic "heavy metal" tap dance performed by Paula Armstrong and a pair of beautiful, introspective movement pieces gracefully danced by the willowy Linley Schmit.

Schmit's final number is a duet of sorts with a video projection of herself in bed. It's a haunting, touching piece, and it may say more about the experience of bipolar disorder than all the rest of the show's content combined.

It's important to understand that Our Own Voice isn't some therapeutic program for troubled actors. Neither is it a simple advocacy group. At its best, the troupe makes confrontational works that reach out across the footlights to challenge audiences to rethink everything they thought they knew about "illness" and the fragile thing we call "sanity."

Ms. Bipolar never quite measures up to the company's best work, but it's still a milestone. It's the first show directed by Claire Rutkauskas, who started performing with the company 15 years ago when she was only 9. Having grown up onstage and under the tutelage of Our Own Voice founder and innovative director/playwright Bill Baker, it will be interesting to see what happens when Rutkauskas' own vision matures.

Through June 14th at TheatreWorks

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