Fringe Festival shows are known for their imagination and whimsy. NELLIE/NELLIE combines these elements with the unexpected inspiration of a true story about an American journalist who went by the pseudonym Nellie Bly. Life-like sound effects, such as that of a typewriter echoing deafening clicks off of the high ceilings at the Broad Street Ministry, remind audiences that the protagonist is based on a real, brave individual.
After easily passing the medical exams for entrance into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on New York’s Blackwell’s Island, Bly documents her unfiltered thoughts and detailed observations on her experiences for publication in the New York World, without the knowledge of the corrupt doctor and neglectful nurse. Narrators read poignant excerpts from her 1887 piece Ten Days in a Madhouse. The descriptive, wincing, and certain humorous readings are accompanied by live, original music, and ethereal yet effective poetry. The hospital conditions were gruesome, and left patients with the lingering idea that it was, “easy to get in, impossible to get out”. Bly wonders if she is “crazy” for taking on such a daunting assignment. This is playfully depicted. One of the most entertaining scenes is from day seven of Bly’s journey, “promenading with lunatics”. The escape attempt of an insanity-ridden inmate provides beautiful visuals of contemporary dance steps and hats made out of newspapers molded into modern forms. It also leaves us with questions: Is everyone just doing some kind of dance to keep their innermost thoughts from making them go mad? Are there any safe places when the mind is so deep and the depths so unknown? “What a mysterious thing madness is.” Their balanced use of space and sounds left me with a maddening desire to see what’s next for the Antigravity Theatre Project. [Broad Street Ministry, 315 South Broad Street] September 11-13,2014; fringearts.com/nellienellie.