The Right Life

A patient of Dr. Oliver Sacks suffered a massive stroke. “Mrs. S” retained her intelligence and humor but could no longer see anything left of her nose. “She has totally lost the idea of left,” Sacks wrote, “with regard to the world and her own body.” Damage to the right hemisphere of her brain blocked half of her visual field. She couldn’t make left turns, saw only half of her plate when eating — and complained of small portions — and only applied makeup to the right side of her face, which drew laughter whenever she went out.

Mrs. S understood the problem intellectually, Sacks wrote, “but it is impossible for her to know it directly” because patients with the syndrome (“unilateral neglect”) behave as if “nothing of any importance could be expected to occur there.”

Sacks wrote his observations in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the 1985 bestseller that drew attention to a relatively unknown subject: syndromes related to the right hemisphere of the brain. While the rational left hemisphere controls language, math, and logic, the allegedly more “primitive” right controls how we perceive — space, recognizing faces, imagery — and also music. In effect, Sacks contends, damage to the right hemisphere can take away “the emotional, the concrete, the personal,” and the real. “It is singularly difficult,” he adds, “for even the most sensitive observer, to picture the inner state, the ‘situation,’ of such patients, for this is almost unimaginably remote from anything he himself has ever known.”

Sir Peter Brook’s play The Man Who, based on Sacks’s book, depicts right-hemisphere syndromes: twins who have “direct cognition, like angels,” or a man convinced his left leg is someone else’s. When Brook began the project, he wanted the patients to be epic adventurers, like Odysseus, exploring unknown parts of the brain/mind. Onstage, however, this approach led to melodrama, so he and cowriter Marie-Hélène Estienne pared down the stories and the theatricality.

In New Village Arts’ staging, it’s clear that director Kristianne Kurner wants to avoid turning The Man Who into a freak show (at times, however, atonal notes in Scott Paulson’s otherwise excellent soundscape suggest ghoulish comments; two circles on the rear wall, zapping electric charges, also contribute to this sense). Less clear is what has replaced it. The approach, for the most part, is cold and clinical: an overhead projection announces a condition (“Broca’s aphasia,” “loss of proprioception”), and a scene demonstrates it as merely a pathology. But what Sacks wanted was the human side of these case studies (the right brain, he says several times, is “the self,” and at one point, “the soul”). Most of the 90-minute show has a rational, left-brain quality.

Toward the end, breakthrough scenes reveal what a patient’s “situation” feels like. Ron Choularton plays “Witty Ticcy Ray,” who has Tourette’s syndrome. He twitches, growls, and shakes uncontrollably and is both happier and angrier than anyone else in the room. Four-letter words blast from a smile. He even imitates his condition; then it dominates him. Then he jokes about it. “There’s a missing link between the mind and the body,” he says. “Joking apart, it’s no joke to be like this.”

In “Jargon,” Manny Fernandes speaks in orderly, deeply felt sentences. If you could turn off your inner dictionary, he’d make complete sense. But many of his words are just jumbles of letters. They frustrate him to no end when others just shake their heads.

“The true story of a political dynasty…they agreed to have their lives on TV.”

How often have we seen 400-year-old plays given a “concept” that lets the designers frolic in a period-paradise but doesn’t serve the text?

Hamlet, for example, has been reset in almost every era — and most countries. Many shifts of this sort, like a witness relocation program, are merely cosmetic. At UCSD, however, director Christopher Ashley has turned The Revenger’s Tragedy, a Jacobean, vengeance-driven bloodbath, into reality TV — and it works! Cameras stalk the plotters, mikes broadcast confessions and teeth-gnashing asides. And the staging raises a persistent question: if they weren’t being filmed, would the killers be so bold?

On Robert Tintoc’s splendid multilevel set, walls drop or rise, revealing posh rooms and even a hot tub, where the dynasty — with emphasis on nasty — frolics. Projections on TV monitors and the walls make the actors at once life-sized, onstage, and gigantic, emblazoned across huge screens. The result’s as surreal as real.

The opening-night performances were less fluid. Many in the cast delivered the iambic pentameter lines — most likely written by Thomas Middleton (though I hear a young John Webster) — stiffly. The words were clear, but they had yet to bulge emotions and hair-on-fire vengeance through them. Those who did both, like Jessica Watkins as fickle Gratiana and Maritxell Carrero as conniving Ambitioso, stood out.

The director keeps the concept alive even during intermission. When the lights come down, the Duke sprawls on the floor, poisoned by Vindice and Hippolito. Instead of the actor stealthing offstage in the shadows, two others drag him off. The Duke isn’t an actor. He’s a real corpse!

The Man Who by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State Street, Carlsbad
Directed by Kristianne Kurner; cast: Ron Choularton, Sandra Ellis-Troy, Manny Fernandes, Walter Murray; scenic design, Tim Wallace; costumes, Amanda Sitton; lighting, Jason Bieber; original score and sound design, Scott Paulson
Playing through February 26; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. 760-433-3245.

The Revenger’s Tragedy, author unknown
UCSD Theatre & Dance, Potiker Theatre, University of California, San Diego
Directed by Christopher Ashley; cast: Marshel Adams, Maren Bush, Maritxell Carrero, Mark Christine, Ross Crain, Johnny Gill, Zachary Harrison, Hugo Medina, Jenni Putney, Jessica Watkins, Bowman Wright; scenic design, Robert Tintoc; costumes, Sarah Cogan; lighting, Stephen Siercks; sound designer/composer, Alyssa Ishii; digital media designer, Ian Wallace
Playing through February 20; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 858-534-4574.

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