TRIGGER WARNING: this play explores mature themes and may be disturbing to some viewers.
It's 1939, and Eli (played by River Guard), an anxious, nervous young man suffering from bipolar disorder, has checked himself into the asylum for treatment. There he meets his fellow patients: the brash, irascible Thom (played by Russel Niessen), who was admitted involuntarily for his truancy and defiance; and the enigmatic Mae (played by Rachel Estok), who has been in the asylum so long she no longer remembers who she is.
Asylum set detail
Early on, another patient (played by Kit Simmons) known only by her number, Patient 0191, sets a grim tone when she has a frantic outburst and is subjected to the "treatment" of electroshock therapy. Whenever a patient is receiving "treatment", the lights in the asylum flicker ominously.
Eli befriends Thom and falls for Mae while a chorus of officious white-smocked nurses (played by Camille Intson, Jacqueline Gruba, Nora Fenton and Jennifer Francis) administer meds and take notes. One nurse (Intson) harbours a soft spot for the patients and is a bit slow to fall into line.
Everyone scrambles when the imperious doctor (played by Bart Ronde), flanked by two imposing orderlies (played by Dave Gible and Radu Birsan), enters the scene. He refers to patients only by their numbers and prescribes "treatment" for perceived intransigence.
Thom is incredulous that Eli would voluntarily join the "prison" holding him, while Mae slowly opens herself to Eli's interest and infatuation. However, the logic of the asylum frustrates their attempts to explore a shared humanity.
Asylum is a big, ambitious ensemble musical that belies its origin as a high school production. It was born during last year's teachers' job action, when the drama club at Westdale Secondary School grew restless in the absence of extra-curriculars.
Niessen, who also directed the play, began working on it after reading about early 20th century insane asylums. It was written by Niessen, Guard and Emma Greve. Steven Ingram wrote all the music and played it live on keyboard during the performance.
The direction is tight and smooth, the acting is confident and expressive, the vocals soar, the music is assured, and the musical harmonies are bold, rich and buttery. (At one point, when the entire company was singing together, I actually got goosebumps.)
I find myself inclined to write something like, "For a play written, scored, performed and directed by high school students..." but frankly that would do a disservice to the objectively high quality of this musical. It's a great play that just happens to be written, scored, performed and directed by a talented group of high school students.
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