There is a scene in Funkopolis' production of "An Exquisite Dream of Fire" called "How to Remove the Nasty Bits." Three actors are silhouetted behind a curtain. Two take the part of doctors; the third is a patient undergoing brain surgery.
The doctors flip open the top of the patient's head and extract long strands of detritus, which they then replace with assorted objects, including a rubber duck.
It's one of the few instances of humor in this deeply earnest hourlong piece about mental illness, currently at the Theatre Project. But while the tone of the surgery scene is lighter than the rest of the evening, it's also central to the production's intent: understanding what goes on inside the head of someone with a brain disorder.
Co-produced with the graduate theater program at Towson University and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, "An Exquisite Dream of Fire" is conceived and directed by Tim Brown, who is also credited with creating the script, in collaboration with other members of Funkopolis, a Baltimore-based company.
A more poetic than clinical piece, the production features a five-person ensemble dressed in white and moving with the grace of dancers (Nancy Wanich Romita is credited as movement consultant). Singly or in unison, Cara Cylus, Brian Loevner, Shannon Maddox, Sean Rung and Anna Marie Sell speak the words of Virginia Woolf, William S. Burroughs, George Santayana, William Shakespeare and scores of the anonymous mentally ill who contributed their stories.
Throughout the evening, various words repeat -- "spark," "fire," "secrets," "darkness." Yet despite the use of such incendiary terms, the overall feel of the piece is arty and subdued. With no particular urgency, actors enter and exit a portable closet, brightly painted with angels, hearts, skulls and various real and imaginary creatures. Rung dons a white coat and assumes the role of a lecturer. Cylus and Sell turn a ladder into a kind of seesaw, with Rung at the fulcrum. And Maddox swathes herself in white netting and says, "I personify a daze, a haze."
Sell is especially effective at conveying defensiveness, seeming to shrink as she insists, "I don't have a secret," and Maddox proves adept at abruptly changing attitudes, shifting from the declamatory, "I am God," to the merely conversational, "Why do you look at me that way?"
In the end, "An Exquisite Dream of Fire" suggests that the mentally ill have a high level of awareness about their conditions, which range here from manic depression to schizophrenia. Regardless of whether this is an accurate generalization, the people portrayed by Funkopolis appear interesting, articulate and, in many ways, as ordinary as those blessed with good mental health.
Maybe it's because the company relied on sources capable of writing intelligibly about their illnesses, or maybe there's some romanticizing going on. Either way, the show seems a little too precious and too even in tone.
Surely the spectrum of mental illness includes more angst and desperation than this nearly reverential production suggests. Even when the performers refer to suicide and murder, they do so with surprising matter-of-factness.
Funkopolis' sincerity is beyond question, but considering the volatility of the subject matter, its "Dream" is unusually restrained.
'An Exquisite Dream of Fire'
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 10
Pub Date: 9/25/99