Feel ‘The Effect’ | new university
Captivating and elegiac, Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ “The Effect” opened April 23 and ran for two weekends at the Robert Cohen Theater before stirring audiences one last time with its closing performance. May, the 1st.
Written by British playwright Lucy Prebble and directed by UCI MFA directorial nominee Chloe King, this cynical romantic comedy centers on a clinical trial for a promising antidepressant produced by the fictional “Rauschen Pharmaceuticals.”
At the heart of the play, among the psychiatrists, are two of the participants in the trial: Tristan (Gio Munguia) and Connie (Fiona Palazzi). Disconnected from the outside world within the confines of the medical trial, the couple’s relationship quickly morphs from strangers into something more, with their combined emotional instability and a desire for connection quickly turning into romance.
It is through this relationship that a guiding question of “effect” materializes: whether antidepressant drugs like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are intended to increase levels of serotonin – a sub- chemical of falling in love – can Connie and Tristan’s feelings ever be genuine, sincere? Or are they just side effects of the treatment?
In the process of exploring this troubling situation, the play powerfully propelled audiences into the grim realities and emotional turmoil surrounding mental health care, challenging how we define mental illness and its effects on our perceptions. , our relationships and ourselves.
A big part of what made “The Effect” so impactful is its immersion. Prior to the start of the play, audiences were transported beyond the theater and into Rauschen Pharmaceuticals through intentional costumes, lighting, audio, and staging.
Actors, dressed as doctors, guarded large glass doors on either side of the slightly elevated stage, taking tickets and temperatures from waiting spectators as they welcomed them as participants in the clinical trial. When all the lights except for a light ring in the center of the stage went out, intense, robotic instrumental music rocked the room and large screens illuminated the current date and dose number of medication. The performers chaotically left their places among the audience to swallow their assigned drugs, put on their scrubs and put on their shoes, and take their places in the study.
From there, the play continued with an impressive attention to audience closeness, creating a realistic and interesting atmosphere that didn’t feel overly staged.
The theater itself also contributed to the immersion of the play, and therefore to its effectiveness. Hosting “The Effect” at the Robert Cohen Theater – a black box theater with no stagnant seating arrangement – allowed for a “theater in the round” formation with audience seating surrounding the stage.
At any point in “The Effect,” every actor on stage could be examined from all of the audience’s vantage points. Brilliantly, this simple yet intentional staging and decor created an intimate and artistic atmosphere where the performers connected and inspired the audience in a deeply real and captivating way. The slightest microexpression, movement or mumble felt present and fully seen, while large-scale actions of horror, beauty and grief radiated intensely throughout the space.
The intimacy of this setup demanded and held the full attention of the room’s audience. For better or for worse – even when uncomfortable emotions or disturbing images made people want to escape the current scene – the audience was forced to understand all the good, bad and ugly of the play.
When the character of Dr. Toby Sealy (Robert Zelaya) presented his TED Talk, the audience for the play became his audience. As Connie and Tristan admitted their romantic interest in each other and solidified their sexual attraction, the audience watched the tender, unabashed waltz moment like flies on the wall. As Tristan was overdosed on antidepressants, members of the public, doctors, patients and Connie all watched his pain in mutual horror. In a breathtaking or grotesque way, “The Effect” transcended the natural and expected divisions of theater.
Fascinatingly, “The Effect” blurred the lines between participant and viewer in far more ways than audience immersion; the views of doctors and patients were also examined on stage, highlighting the indifference of depression. As the production acknowledged, anyone can have mental health issues – patients and medical professionals.
Dr. Lorna James (Feyintoluwa Ekisola) illustrated this indeterminacy of the character’s identity in the play. Although she is an expert psychiatrist dedicated to caring for people in the clinical trial and recording accurate results on the effectiveness of the antidepressant, she openly struggled with her own mental health. Filled with guilt surrounding the trial failures and Tristan’s complication, she took a permanent place sleeping on one of the stage benches for the majority of Act 2. As the scenes began and ended around She lay covered and lifeless in a depressed bundle of blankets and sadness, oblivious to the passage of time. By the end of the play, Dr. James needed the reassurance and treatment she once provided, and she eventually turned to antidepressant medication for help – much like the drugs tested during the test she once oversaw.
For audiences, his character’s circularity and haunting imagery left a devastating and sad impact attributed to Prebble’s writing, King’s direction, and Ekisola’s compelling portrayal of the role.
The four lead actors – Munguia, Palazzi, Ekisola and Zeyala – all brought emotional depth, complexity and skill to their performances. Munguia’s performance as Tristan was utterly wonderful – full of dazzling, comedic delivery and seriousness, he was both heartbreaking and charming. Likewise, Palazzi was dynamic, measured, and personable as Connie, and her chemistry with Munguia was delightful. Ekisola’s portrayal of Dr. James was equally powerful and honest, exuding a memorable depth and relativity, especially throughout Act 2 during his character’s declining sanity. Alternatively, Zelaya delivered a terrific, engaging, and believable performance as Dr. Sealy. The movement chorus, consisting of Nathan Bravo, Jamie Collazo, Jeyna Lynn Gonzales, also nicely added movement and presence to the piece.
Creative and captivating, the costumes in the play foreshadowed and paralleled emotions and themes of shifting identity, self-examination and honesty. This was particularly present in Tristan and Connie’s scrubs – from pink to blue and back again – as the lawsuit assured, and the bare leotards covered in neon handprints worn as the couple consummated their relationship. Additionally, the lighting, music, and onstage direction of this scene were executed through gloriously raw movement, articulating organic apprehension, honesty, and bliss through onstage connection.
In its entirety, “The Effect” was an entertaining and important theatrical experience. In the process of examining the effect of antidepressants on a loving mind, he exposed the inner workings and effectiveness of the mental health industry. While the variety of emotions depicted can be overwhelming at times, its colliding plotlines are tied together to produce a moving and necessary examination of a society still feeling the results of pandemic isolation.
As King explained in the director’s notes, “We’re at a point where not only do we need, but we want to improve and be open and honest about our experiences. ‘The Effect’… asks the question: what is a healthy mind, how do we define normalcy and how can the health sector best serve those who need it most.
Clairesse Schweig is an entertainment editor. They can be contacted at [email protected]