There is a fashion recently, in solo performance, for shows that I can only describe as “I have an offbeat relative” – a pregnant brother, a gay father, and in Bitter Medicine, a schizophrenic brother. SummerWorks has often done well with these shows, but this one, based on a graphic memoir, fell entirely flat for me. Neither storytelling nor proper acting, by the end I wasn’t sure why I was listening to this relatively factual recitation of a man’s experience with (as it turns out) two schizophrenic brothers.
Sometimes, what works in text doesn’t make the leap to performance very well. And so, what I imagine must be an affecting book – it certainly won many awards – just doesn’t have the narrative arc I feel a stage play demands.
Brian Smith plays Clem (the non-schizophrenic brother) with the kind of measured and tender affect you’d expect from a guy who found it in himself to stay present and connected with a brother who had a great deal of difficulty in a neurotypical world. An hour of measured and tender, or even a lifetime of it, is unfortunately just not the stuff of a moving show. Maybe especially this is true of a lifetime condensed into an hour. I liked the Clem that Smith presented plenty; he seemed like a lovely fellow. But it became hard for me to care after a few minutes.
In particular, I wish the show had taken more time, even a lot more, with the discussion of Oliver’s talents or gifts instead of the long laundry list of his symptoms. I would have been interested to know, from Oliver’s perspective, how the world around him failed to make enough space for him to participate in it with his uncommonness – an interrogation of the value of “normal.” But when those things came, they were brief and very much through the lens of the neurotypical Clem, who has done a lot to help his brother feel more normal. I wondered whether Oliver wanted that, or what he struggled with, or how he overcame the struggles. It may have been a rawer or rougher journey, but it seems like a more compelling lens than the one we got.
I find it difficult to come to the end of this review without much positive to say about the show I saw. It’s clear that a lot of work went into the show, and that the men involved have lived through a great deal with considerable grace. In this case, however, I wish I’d stayed home and read the book.
Thursday August 7, 6:30pm
Friday August 8, 7:30pm
Saturday August 9, 10:00pm
Sunday August 10, 5:00pm
Monday August 11, 4:30pm
Friday August 15, 5:30pm
Saturday August 16, 8:00pm
Sunday August 17, 5:00pm
All individual SummerWorks tickets are $15 at the door (cash only). Tickets are available online at http://summerworks.ca, by phone at 416-907-0468, or in person at the SummerWorks Info Booth – located at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West) August 5th-17th from 10AM – 7PM (Advance tickets are $15 + service fee)
Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 3 shows
Artwork by Oliver Martini provided by the company.