Review: “The House of Blue Leaves”

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House of Blue Leaves, image courtesy of https://www.photos.jewell.edu/

From Nov. 1-3, the William Jewell College Theater Company showcased “The House of Blue Leaves” by John Guare, an unsettling exploration of the ‘60s American culture. The play was shown at Garnett Peters Theater at William Jewell College and was directed by Dr. Chris McCoy, stage director of Jewell Theatre Company and assistant professor of theatre. 

The play takes place in New York City during 1965, when Pope Paul VI took his historic journey to the United States. The play centers on three characters: Artie Shaughnessy – played by sophomore Jaimeson Satterfield, Bunny Flingus – played by senior Caroline Seitz, and Bananas Shaughnessy – played by sophomore Emma Mayfield. Artie Shaughnessy, who is married to Bananas Shaughnessy, is tired of his unglamorous life as a zookeeper. He thinks himself to be a great songwriter whose music will someday be featured on famous movies. But someday seems to never arrive for Artie Shaughnessy, who grows more and more anxious as his aspirations repeatedly fail and his marriage collapses. 

Bananas Shaughnessy is mentally ill – she frequently pretends to be an animal and enters fits of heightened emotions: anger, fear and manic joy blur together. Artie Shaughnessy, tired and disillusioned by his wife’s lack of recovery or remorse for her uncontrolled mania, falls in love with Bunny Flingus, who is known for her heavenly cooking. Together they plan to get married and move to California to reunite with Artie Shaughnessy’s  old friend and now famous Hollywood director, Billy Einorn – played by senior Terrace Wyatt Jr., and fully develop Artie’s musical talents. 

First, however, Artie Shaughnessy must deliver his wife to a mental hospital, which is described as having trees with blue leaves. At the same time, and unbeknownst to the couple, their son, Ronnie Shaughnessy  – played by junior James Hobb – has illegally traveled home from the army in an attempt to assassinate the Pope. The characters’ evenings all take a chaotic turn as a troupe of nuns, a famous actress and Billy’s girlfriend, Corrinna Stroller – played by first-year Faith Harris, arrive at the apartment. The play is a self-referential dark comedy that explores mental illness, celebrity worship, consumerism, and the frenzied zeal for success during the 1960s in the United States. 

While the very opening of the play was a little grating, looking back it was actually a display of the actors’ impressive abilities to summon a bygone, hectic ‘60s era that can be difficult for the modern audience to identify with. When Bunny Shaughnessy first stepped onto the stage, her loud hysterics seemed to me to be altogether too much, but when the theme of the play became clearer, I found myself sucked into the amazing narrative and acting. 

The play features complex character dynamics tinged with stigmas against mental illness and an unhealthy obsession with material success. What really impressed me throughout the play were the moments when the actors engaged directly with the audience. The lights would suddenly dim and all the characters except one would stop moving. This one particular character would then disengage from the play’s reality to speak directly to the audience. These haunting moments revealed something of the character’s inner thoughts: their fears, desires and frustrations. 

Of these, the most memorable involved Satterfield’s and Harris’ interactions with the audience. One of the scenes in the play involves Bananas Shaughnessy revealing to her husband that what he believed to be his first musical breakthrough was simply a rip-off of a popular Christmas tune, Artie engages directly with the audience in an attempt to rationalize his ensuing actions – beating his wife. This break in the fourth wall gave an important insight on the extent to which resentment of his wife had poisoned Artie Shaughnessy’s psyche, until this final event involving his music caused him to lash out on his wife. 

Harris’ interactions with the audience were equally as disquieting – a loud, piercing noise interrupted the easy-going conversation that was going on between Harris’ character and the other members of the Shaughnessy household. Harris writhed in pain until she finally removed her transistors. She then went on to beg the audience not to tell the other characters about her disabilities, for it would shatter her image as a Hollywood superstar. Both of these scenes served to explore the aforementioned stigmas against mental and physical disabilities in the ‘60s and their relation to preconceived notions of material success and fame. 

I have to commend the Jewell Theatre Troupe on their ability to evoke the ‘60s era. The costume designs were quite good – particularly Bunny Shaughnessy’s leopard print coat and beehive bun. Furthermore, Stroller’s bombshell hair look was also quite reminiscent of the ‘60s and entirely in keeping with the character’s status as a Hollywood actress. 

The bombshell hairstyle was one way in which social taboos were challenged during the 1960s. Sexuality, particularly in cinema – the realm which Stroller inhabited – became increasingly prominent, and actresses frequently wore their hair in long, flowing and voluminous styles. Furthermore, the actors’ accents, particularly Satterfield’s, were key to conveying that “Oi! I’m walking here!” spirit that we have come to associate with New York City. 

My one major gripe with the overall play was the lighting. For the most part, the lighting was superb at creating a particular mood of desolation or fear, as mentioned before. However, I found that the ending of the play was a little devitalized because of the excessively neon quality of the blue light used in the final scene. Satterfield turned to the crowd and gave his ending monologue after having just killed his wife, but his facial expressions were completely lost to the overwhelming blue-ness of the spotlight. While I understand that the play of course centers on the notion of the blue leaves of the mental institution, I think that a much softer light would have more effectively conveyed the grim nature of American culture without sacrificing audience visibility. 

A minor gripe would be the scene where the voice of the Pope is heard. Usually when a translator is superimposed on top of the original speaker, the original speaker’s volume is reduced to let the people hear the translated speech. This was not the case in this iteration of “The House of Blue Leaves. I had difficulty understanding what the translator, Riley Findlay, senior vocal performance major, was saying because of this, and I lost much of the significance of the Pope’s speech to the play. 

The Jewell Theatre Troupe did a really good job of connecting with its audience. There were moments when the entire theatre uttered a few curse words in shock. People were really disconcerted walking out, and that’s the mark of a really good play production. It’s aim isn’t necessarily to make you happy at the end – it’s to leave you unsettled, wondering about the nature of your reality and uncomfortable with the way you are. I look forward to attending more quality plays hosted by the Jewell Theatre Troupe.

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