Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Yellow Wallpaper—CoHo Productions—NW Portland

“Windmills of the Mind”

The is a world premiere of an eerie drama by local playwright, Sue Mach, and adapted for the stage from a short story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, co-produced by Mach and Grace Carter and directed by Philip Cuomo (CoHo’s Producing Artistic Director).  It is playing at their space, 2257 NW Raleigh St., through February 6th.  For more information, go to their site at www.cohoproductions.org or call 503-220-2646.

I read this short story a number of years ago and it is one of the eeriest I’ve ever read.  It stays with you.  It has similarities to Henry James’ ghostly, “Turn of the Screw,” the haunting “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and even the suspense film, “Shutter Island.”  They all deal with the trappings or windmills of the mind.

The story also deals with spirits that may exist which possibly only certain people can sense.  Or is it in their minds?  After a whirlwind courtship between a rather prominent doctor, John (Chris Harder) and an independent-minded, young woman, Charlotte (Grace Carter), we are immediately thrust into the bulk of the story.

Some time has passed and the couple has rented a summer house in the country so that Charlotte can have some peace and quiet.  You assume she has had a breakdown of some sort and she also has had a child.  Is she suffering from post-partum depression?  Not explained.  Whatever the cause, she is on a restricted diet and must not excite herself…no reading material, no writing, only quiet and rest.

John’s devoted sister, Jenny (Christy Bigelow), has been assigned as a nurse/companion for her and this seems to have a soothing effect for awhile.  But in the confines of her bedroom she definitely takes issue with the room, specifically her yellow wallpaper, which disturbs her greatly.  She believes the patterns are changing and hears noises/voices coming from within it.  It seems the room was once a nursery/playroom for children but no explanation as to what happened to the former occupants.  Could it be they had been swallowed up by the room, the wallpaper?  Possibly.

Burt creepiest of all, she believes a Woman (Diana Schultz), is living within the wallpaper, trapped perhaps, waiting to get out.  Is it real or is she being drugged in some way to drive her mad, possibility because she is so independent-minded that she has become an embarrassment to her husband in what was, primarily, a patriarchal world?  Maybe.  But, the creepiest of all, is that she seems to recognize the Woman.  If she could only figure out where….  To tell more would spoil the story but hopefully I’ve left you hungering for more.

Mach’s adaptation is very imaginative, asking questions, giving hints but only giving you a taste of…possibilities.  This is a story that sneaks up on you.  Just when you think you may have solved the puzzle, another element intercedes.  First and foremost, Mach is a story-teller and this, like her other plays, embodies that premise.  And story-telling is the chief asset a play must have for it to be enjoyed by an audience.  Tell a good story and you will have them enchanted.  Mach does that well in this play.

Cuomo has kept the setting sparse, giving full room to concentrate on the most important aspects, the main character and the wallpaper.  There are moments of quiet, like the hair washing scene, to let the audience take a breath before the next onslaught of action.  Hitchcock, the master of suspense, would have been proud, as he always said that an audience needs a moment of respite every now and then to breathe and collect their thoughts.  Cuomo has done a masterful job of pacing and modulating the actors and action to maximum benefit.

Harder give a well-calculated performance and keeps you guessing as to his possible involvement.  Bigelow is quite effective as her friend but also seems trapped in a traditional woman’s role, not to question a man’s decisions.  Schultz, as the Woman, is just plain creepy, reminding me of the creature in those Japanese “Grudge” movies.  The scenic design (Dan Meeker) and video projections are very effective and add immensely to the success of the production.

But Carter is the focal point and she builds and transforms her character step by step until…the final showdown.  This would be a very tough role for any actor but after seeing her embody it, I couldn’t imagine anyone else performing it.  She, as is said, not only takes the bull by the horns and rides it, but becomes it.  Bravo.  A tour-de-force.

One final note, after I got home and got in bed, I do believe I saw the wallpaper in my room begin to move.  But, perhaps I shouldn’t be saying that too loud, lest you think…  Well, never mind.  Also, I mentioned to Sue after the show, that I thought it was “a dirty play.”  Of course, to understand what I meant, you’ll just have to see it won’t you?!

I recommend this play but, be warned, parking is a major problem in this part of Portland, especially on weekend nights, so plan your time accordingly.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them Dennis sent you.