by Chris Davis
If you want entertainment, go see Miss Saigon or Brighton Beach Memoirs. If you want to experience a harrowing slice of life from the perspective of a disadvantaged, mentally ill woman who's committed murders she can't begin to comprehend, you won't want to miss The Ballad of Angie Awry, presented by Our Own Voice Theater Troupe.
"In the past, I've avoided doing any kind of play where a mentally ill person does something bad, because the stereotype is that they're all a bunch of serial killers," Bill Baker says cautiously. As the founding director of Our Own Voice, Baker works with like-minded artists to explore issues and ideas related to mental health. With his new play, The Ballad of Angie Awry — a play on the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity legal plea (NGRI, get it?) — Baker is simultaneously exploring new territory and getting back to basics.
"Basically, I've tried to get inside of a person who commits a horrible crime," Baker says. "In the first act, all of her hallucinations are experienced by the audience. We get this extra information, the voices, the paranoia, the heightened trepidation. In the second act, I take that away so the audience is no longer subjectively inside the character. They are looking at things from the outside, as most of us do when we're watching someone with a mental illness on trial."
Baker isn't excusing the crime. "We will certainly recognize that what she's done is wrong," he says. "We'll also understand the obstacles and judgments that led her to these actions, and, hopefully, there will be some compassion for her."
Baker describes Angie Awry as a Brechtian tragedy at the crossroads of the justice and mental-health-care systems, inspired by Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and legislation that would prevent the use of the death penalty in cases where a defendant has a severe and persistent mental illness.
What do we mean when we say Brechtian? In this case it's a deemphasization of traditional theatrical elements like spectacle, fancy dress, and slick acting. Although Baker says the aim of his teaching play is compassion, that may be an over simplification. The audience, being exposed to information the characters don't always have, is shown why compassion is appropriate, even in the midst of horror, when the blood is calling out for vengeance.
OOVs work is fascinating, but it simply isn't going to appeal to everyone. I hate making that disclaimer when I review the group's work, and only do so because the company values a completely different set of theatrical principles than what most people are accustomed to. It's my sincere wish that more people would try a sample, and Angie Awry, with its relatively straightforward narrative, seems like a good place to start. Although it's not a musical, a folk trio has been incorporated into the story, narrating, and commenting on Angie's pitiful circumstances with an extended acoustic ballad that, contemporary references aside, could have been penned a hundred or more years ago. It's this ballad that most firmly connects Angie Awry to something more than a single moment in history, and implants her story deeply in our consciousness.
Our Own Voice Theatre Company presents The Ballad of Angie Awry at TheatreWorks, Through May 11th. $10.