Head Cases

An autism opera, an aphasia comedy, a Tourette's musical

Ever get the feeling your parents have been replaced by evil pod people? Vincent, the sullen teenager at the center of Justin Warner's Impostors, has a medical excuse: A car crash left him with a concussion that led to Capgras's syndrome, a rare condition characterized by the delusion that doubles have supplanted common objects, friends, or relatives. Warner (who majored in neuropsychology) seems less concerned with the symptoms themselves than he is with probing the seemingly arbitrary nature of family relationships. Illness works overtime as metaphor at Neurofest.

Billed as the first theater festival dedicated to neurological conditions, Neurofest is the brainchild of Edward Einhorn, artistic director of Untitled Theater Company 61, no strangers to quixotic enterprises: an all-Ionesco cycle in 2001, and "24/7," a week's worth of plays written, rehearsed, and performed in under 24 hours. But the scope and ambition of Neurofest is—for lack of a better word—mind-boggling: 13 plays in 25 days, presented in repertory on Theater 5's diminutive stage, plus seminars and panel discussions. A quick look at the program reveals nothing resembling the dry jargon of medical journals or the bathetic sickness-of-the-week movies on Lifetime. Instead, there's a multimedia one-man show about the mad- cow-like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease ( CJD), a puppet show about Asperger's syndrome (The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Robot), and—adding involuntary insults to head injuries—Welcome to Tourettaville!, a musical co- written by a seven-year-old. The overcrowded chamber opera Tabula Rasa, by Robert Lawson and Henry Akona, conflates the story of an autistic girl with those of Hansel and Gretel and the real-life Wild Boy of Aveyron, a feral child who wandered out of a French forest in 1797 and became a cause célébre.

Einhorn drew inspiration from Oliver Sacks, the neurologist turned bestselling author whose quirky case studies have been adapted for the screen ( Awakenings) and the opera stage ( The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). But he also has a personal interest: His mother, a psychologist afflicted with dementia, and her father, who discovered the Rh factor, are the subjects of Einhorn's found-text piece Doctors Jane and Alexander.

Einhorn also wrote and directed the quirky double bill Strangers and Linguish. The first part, a two-hander pregnant with Pinter-esque pauses, manages to convey the numbing repetitiveness and frustration of life with an amnesiac. The second, an inspired absurdist comedy, follows four strangers infected with a mysterious form of aphasia who are quarantined in a No Exit bunker. Literally at a loss for words, they must invent a new language in order to communicate—or to keep from going crazy. Side effects may include hilarity, we are told (it's definitely contagious). Linguists will love this play. Hypochondriacs, on the other hand, should stay far away from the whole festival.

 
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