Theater Review: “Schizo” at Shaking the Tree

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By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

Mental illness stills carries such a stigma in our culture that the title Schizo (at Shaking the Tree through August 29) likely conjures images of an edgy, dark thriller, or self-deprecating comedic monologue. Katie Watkins’ affecting, expressionistic one-woman show is neither, however. Instead it’s a haunting, thoughtful exploration of schizophrenia, based on the writer/actress’s observations of her brother’s struggles with the condition in adolescence and early adulthood.

Inventive and nonlinear, Schizo uses various, generally successful techniques to communicate the illness’s effects. Particularly haunting are the dance-like passages in which Watkins enacts the frightening hold schizophrenia exercises when Jeff, her brother and the story’s protagonist, is unmedicated.

SCHIZO_KatieWatkins3Schizo employs voicemails to guide the audience chronologically through Jeff’s passage. In addition to the wordless dancing, the show employs specific writings, such as a lengthy list of coping techniques for when voices appear, and a terrifying paean to suicide that quotes from poet Anne Sexton’s “Wanting to Die.” Watkins is a captivating performer, easily focusing the audience’s attention as she leads them through the piece.

Wordless moments—such as when Jeff attempts to practice self-care through meditation, only to have the songs he chooses mutate and overwhelm him—dramatize his condition vividly in a manner refreshingly free of chatty, jargon-filled exposition.

At only 35 minutes, Schizo feels a bit brisk. The play’s choices are so successful, one wishes it might have been expanded to a more standard 75- or 90-minute length. The ending, particularly, feels abrupt and somewhat at odds, tonally, with what preceded it.

The show is well worth seeing, though. The set, sound design and lighting are all at once abstract and unified. Like Watkins’ script and performance, they forsake naturalism, and instead plunge one into Jeff’s experience, creating a visceral empathy for a condition our culture far too often turns away from.

Schizo at Shaking the Tree through August 29 at 8 p.m.