Election Section

‘Blue/Orange’ Examines the Politics of Mental Illness By KEN BULLOCK

Special to the Planet
Friday April 22, 2005

All the action of Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange (now at the Aurora) plays out in the confines of an examining room in a mental hospital in London. It is a place where two people usually meet, one listening to the other. 

Meant to be a safe place, the room becomes the locus for a furiously confused dialogue, words circling round and round like subatomic particles in a charged atmosphere that’s like a cloud chamber. A third voice chiming in makes, from the start, a peculiarly dissonant chord out of an alternating trio of often-clashing duets. 

Chris (played by Paul Oliver), a young black man, is finishing up a 28-day hold in the hospital after “an incident” in a marketplace—with an orange? He’s eager to get out, and a little aggressive toward, a bit mocking of his redheaded doctor, Bruce (T. Edward Webster). He teases Bruce that Bruce’s saying to him, in effect, “‘No drugs for you, nigger, because you’d really enjoy them. These are my drugs.’ You white doctors are just in denial.” Bruce continues to act friendly: “Have a smoke, watch the football.” The smile dies on Chris’s lips. 

Chris talks about leaving, getting back to real life. “When I saw all the others—you know, the other geezers—I said, ‘This is a nut house.’” 

Bruce demurs. “We actually don’t use ‘crazy,’” he says, “some terms are just inaccurate. ‘Crazy’ is one of them. Unhelpful.” 

But Chris has been saying Bruce and the other doctors view him as “a crazy nigger.” The slipperiness of repetition and attribution and reference as to who’s said what is a big modus operandi of the play; one of the virtues of the tangled dialogue is that the audience can follows the confusions of the characters with unusual clarity—and bursts of humor, sometimes manic and superlucid—perfect illusion of both involvement in and detachment from the action and the wrangling over what it all means. 

Chris is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder—“keyword: Borderline”—between neurotic and psychotic. “If people get the meaning of the word wrong, how can they get the person right?” A “suit” appears in the room, compliments Bruce randily on his wife and her fondue—actually, welsh rarebit. It’s Robert (Paul Whitworth), Bruce’s supervisor, in for a consult. 

Robert’s chatty, brandishes a cigarette and coffee, and gives Chris the forbidden fruit—in the hospital, nicotine and caffeine are verboten. In fact, Robert’s extravagant manner and mannerisms are counterpoint to Bruce’s painstakingly clinical bedside manner—and parallel to Chris’s nervous jauntiness, at least when Chris is flying high. With Chris out of the room, Bruce tells Robert he wants Chris’s hold upgraded for more time in treatment as an inpatient—he’s afraid Chris is on the verge of a breakdown. 

Robert disagrees: “Look around you. Who doesn’t have declining social skills? It’s normal!” 

Robert talks a Byzantine mosaic around the question, all the while pacing, gesticulating, tacking under full trim before the wind (a marvelous performance by Whitworth). He’s also clueing Bruce in on the ropes of the profession, with great professional vanity and perhaps a warning. Robert explains his research, on which he hopes to gain a full professorship—a study (and deep understanding, of course) of cultural relativism, ethnocenticity, and all the different signals and shades of meaning every word and act imply. Theory follows hunch follows simple pragmatism on why Bruce should go. 

As a last ditch defense of his opinion, Bruce gets the re-admitted Chris to break open an orange. What color is it?  

“Completely blue ... it’s a bad orange; don’t eat it!” Then Chris tells of his famous African father and a special connection to oranges. 

In a series of scenes and vignettes, the trio combines and recombines in various tete-a-tetes and back together again, as confidences, pleas, hysterias, doubts and revelations are shared—and, just as easily, reversed or shattered. Hostilities, sometimes mistaken or manipulated, come out on the table. And it’s not just Chris who might be out on the street. 

Joe Penhall, in some engaging remarks in the program, jokes about the price of success of his play: “Uh-oh—the naive, young, gunslinging playwright days are over now,” and jokes that he “kind of nicked” his structure from David Mamet’s Speed The Plow, but “nobody spotted it.” It goes a good deal further back, to Strindberg’s intense confrontations, with dialogue that fluctuates almost cybernetically, changing with a changing situation—and changing the situation itself, besides casting light on it. Or even further back, to that moment in drama Antonin Artaud identified with Euripides’s tragedies, in which man was no longer a little god anymore, but “where we don’t know just where we are.” There are no clearcut heroes or villains to Blue/Orange. 

“Who do you think you are? God?” Bruce asks of Robert. “How does Archbishop of Canterbury sound?” is the catty response. Tom Ross has presided over a tight cast in what he calls a play about “the politics of mental illness ... a battle of wills ... who’s on top at any given moment.” 

In such a hall of mirrors, with the patient staring at the doctors staring at him, there’s no clear thoroughfare, only the slippery, selfserving advice: “Do you want to get better? Then you must do what you must do.” 


Blue/Orange runs through May 15 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets, $28-$45. 843-4822 or www.aurora.theatre.org.