by Dorothy Dittrich
Studio 16, 1555 W. 7th Av.
Psychodrama has a respectable history in the contemporary theatre. Major playwrights like Edward Albee (Three Tall Women) and Michel Tremblay (Albertine in Five Times) dramatize a woman’s interior life by having multiple actresses play her simultaneously at various ages. In John Gray’s Health: The Musical, different actors play a man’s anatomy. His belly, bum and other parts sing his mid-life crisis in four-part harmony.
The genre’s conventions are tricky. The playwright often has to break a primary rule of dramatic writing: show, don’t tell. As the character carries on an internal dialogue, his or her life outside—friends, lovers, family, politics—generally gets described to the audience rather than staged. Strong writing and compelling acting are required to make this work. Dorothy Dittrich’s new psychodrama, The Dissociates, has mixed success on the first count but does very well on the second in Bill Devine’s Sea Theatre production.
Alex (Wendy Noel in a beautifully honest performance) is a lesbian woman in mid-life crisis. Slitting her wrists is symptomatic of the way she has come apart, as are the various aspects of her psyche who appear on stage, visible to one another but not to her. As she putters in her symbolically untended garden, talking to herself or her plants, trying to put herself back together, the play proceeds like a fugue. Alex establishes a situation or theme and the others then discuss it, offering commentary from different points of view.
All six of Alex’s alter egos deliver strong performances, including Eileen Barrett, Catriona Leger, Naomi Wright, and her male part, Alex McMorran, who does effective double-duty as Alex’s therapist. But the best come from her two most radical selves. Ruth McIntosh is her inner Buddhist. Her head shaved, sitting in lotus position on a high platform, McIntosh provides a running Buddhist advice column (“attend to your inner voice, be always present”) that in a lesser actor might sound ridiculous. At the other extreme, Jenn Griffin is the cynic whose hard-edged realism offers many of the best laughs in the show.
There is a good deal of humour amid the earnestness. Alex gets off some great zingers at the expense of Jean-Paul Sartre, lesbian Buddhist therapists, and the anti-smoking crowd. ‘Jesus,” she says, lighting a cigarette, “compared to slashing your wrists, this is like having a salad.”
While Noel and the others bring Alex’s internal complexity alive, the life outside her suffers from abstraction. We hear about her various lovers, her mother, and best friend, but never see them. Discussions of lesbian political struggles remain general and vague. Alex’s doctor advises her to connect with other people. Dittrich might have helped her out by making those people flesh and blood.