Intense and disturbing, MERLIN AND WART, a new three-act play written, produced, and directed by Kevin Stackhouse, brings dramatic focus to the deplorable conditions at Philadelphia’s Byberry Mental Hospital on the day of its closing in 1987, imagining the irreversible effects that the atrocious abuse and neglect at the derelict institution had on the people it was supposed to help. The powerful two-hander is a stirring example of theater in the service of social reform, with tour-de-force performances by Andrew Blasenak and Steve Wei in the titular roles of the last two fictional patients left to fend for themselves, with nowhere to go, no one to turn to, and no capacity to survive in the outside world.
The astute script conveys the irrational ravings of two severely ill men: Merlin (Blasenak), a charismatic and controlling sociopath who believes he is the wizard from King Arthur’s court, who “youthens” instead of aging, and has the power to stop time and to obliterate all the people on earth; and Wart (Wei), a brilliant young physicist suffering from neurotic anxiety and psychosis, who fired seven shots into a crowded movie theater and was sentenced to confinement in the antiquated facility for the criminally insane (in a country, we infer, with a powerful lobby that relentlessly fights against gun control).
Both actors convincingly portray the mannerisms, emotional agitation, and dissociative state of delusional patients in a mental institution, accurately evoking their identifiable symptoms and behaviors. But they also give good indications of the intelligence and education of the formerly successful men gone mad, posing existentialist questions (“Did they know two years ago that they only had two years to live?”) and making erudite references, not only to the medieval tale of Camelot, but also to Einstein, Plato, J.D. Salinger, Ken Kesey, and the intersection of religion and physics. Their rapid-fire delivery of the semi-lucid conversations is flawless, as they build to a frenetic climax and heart-wrenching conclusion.
A disquieting scenic design by Bobby Goodrich bespeaks the appalling state of the asylum, in a setting defined by decaying walls, sagging plastic tarps, a stained industrial sink, and a floor strewn with discarded paper towels and crawling with cockroaches. The characters wear torn and filthy clothing (costumes also by Goodrich), and Wart’s eyeglasses are taped together, often slipping and sitting at an odd angle that would result in distorted vision, evincing the hospital’s revolting disregard for its vulnerable inmates.
This world-premiere work is not only impressive, but important. It shows the effect that art can have in addressing such momentous issues as the failure of the mental healthcare system and the need for gun control. Kudos to Stackhouse and his team for making this bold and impactful statement.
[Tavern on Camac, 243 S. Camac, 2nd floor] November 5-22, 2015; merlinandwartplay.weebly.com.