SAN DIEGO — Poetry and madness. In the darkest visions of artistic creation, the two are often linked, usually with the poet living in a garret, drinking cheap red wine and scribbling angry protestations to the world in fits of productivity more like exorcism than sublime creation.
Such is the scenario of John Olive's "Standing on My Knees" at the tiny Marquis Gallery Theater.
The Minnesota playwright gives the romantic image a slight twist: the schizophrenic poet is a woman, and her Yuppie boyfriend has bought her a case of very expensive red wine to wash down the Thorazine that is supposed to help her keep a grip on sanity.
Directed by James B. Johnson, the Marquis Gallery production reveals all of the weak spots in Olive's script. A number of newcomers have lately been given the chance to try their skills in the drafty little theater. It offers a big challenge, with its limiting space and lighting facilities. But one-color acting is Johnson's nemesis, and the color here is gray.
Played by Jennifer Myers Johnson, poet Catherine is trying to reconnect with her life and her work after months of hospitalization from her last mental breakdown.
When the play opens, she is in bed. We hear the voices that haunt her sleep, calling her back into the mental darkness that seems to be, for Catherine, always just a thought away. Her writing is her raison d'etre , but it is also the passionate act in which she--quite literally--loses herself.
The play's most innovative facet is its structure, which overlaps scenes in a dreamlike mix that conveys more about Catherine's state of mind than all the trite summations of her shrink, Joanne (Pat Olafson).
Catherine's bed is center stage--the focus of her nightmares, her Thorazine-laden sleep, her struggle to conduct a "normal" affair with stockbroker Robert (Rich Metz). It is the place where the madness sometimes rules, and her up-tight publisher, Alice (Whitney Marlette), carries her off for another round of lost days in the hospital.
Under Johnson's direction, the scene-blending also means walking through walls, with Catherine beginning sessions with Joanne (seated in darkness at the edge of the acting area) while she's still in her apartment putting on her raincoat. As she tells Joanne about events in her life, she moves back into them, then back to Joanne.
Sometimes, Alice and Joanne appear at the edge of the stage as the midnight "voices" that seem to find entrance when Catherine opens her mind to her poetry, drawing her inspiration from the lowest rather than the highest astral levels.
Unfortunately, this floating action is marred by Johnson's untrained staging, which ignores the three-quarter-round setting. Backs are turned, faces obscured from whole sections of the audience--not to achieve an effect, but from pure neglect.
As Catherine, Jennifer Johnson fails to provide the full rainbow of contrasts that should exist in such a personality. Despair is certainly an element of her struggle, but it needs joy, laughter, moments of shining sanity to make the darkness as ominous as it truly is.
Just as Jennifer Johnson is given only one shirt and pair of jeans to wear and to sleep in throughout both acts, the actress conveys a monotone of depression, which drugs our failing interest more heavily than the Thorazine that keeps Catherine from her beloved poetry.
Robert's intrusions into this world should be bringing light and romance, but Metz and Johnson never manage to ignite this passion. Their relationship is a puzzle. Metz does spark some occasional humor but then quickly sinks back into the awkwardness that keeps his character wrapped in cellophane.
It is only during Catherine's final relapse that the actress wakes up--and so do we. But it is too late. We have all become victims of a too-literal, one-dimensional reading of Olive's play.
Whitney Marlette shows promise as Catherine's pushy, neurotic publisher, but she eventually succumbs to the bad direction, which keeps part of her performance blocked from view and parts of her character undeveloped.
Pat Olafson is too sugary as Joanne, stuck with Olive's worst writing. He may have been trying to expose the ineptitude of the medical profession in dealing with schizophrenia, offering little more than numbing drugs and empty reassurances. But Olafson's continual chant, "You're doing very well," loses its ironic impact when the character isn't breathing fully and alive on stage.
George Edwards' sound design offers some interesting approximations of the sounds of insanity. Harry Lee Martin II's "costume" for Catherine is such an insult that his other efforts cannot be appreciated. Jim Benton's design for the poet's garret makes the best of the limited space.
It takes guts to stage a play for public consumption. This, Johnson's production company does have, along with commendable support from the Marquis management. What they need now is more practice--and careful artistic judgment.
"STANDING ON MY KNEES" By John Olive. Directed by James B. Johnson. Set design by Jim Benton. Lights/sound design by George Edwards. Costumes by Harry Lee Martin II. With Jennifer Myers Johnson, Whitney Marlette, Pat Olafson, Rich Metz. Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. through Dec. 13 at the Marquis Gallery Theater, 3717 India St. Co-produced by On the Brink.