The creators and actors of "Sick by Seven" Review- interviews about the profound and the personal nature of this project

“There are a lot of people pretending to be something that they’re not. I think this leads to terrible diseases”. John Lennon


David E. Tolchinsky in Evanston, photo courtesy Debra Tolchinsky



On Friday night, June 17, 2016, “Sick by Seven” premiered at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells, where it will be presented through this Sunday, June 26, 2016. This is a remarkably entertaining, important and thought-provoking incubator series, about the nature of illness in the modern world, whose works we previously examined in our preview article, “Sick by Seven”-(go here)  During the performance, this reviewer was struck by the enormous talent required to put together the series, talent manifestly obvious both in the videos and on stage. The depth of the material was so profound, yet portrayed with so much humanity; so many personal voices were heard, working together with so much devotion and humor! Afterward, I had the opportunity to interview the individual responsible for most of the video in the installation, a playwright/director/co-curator, a playwright-actor, and two other actors. All of them had extensive and impressive resumes. They were asked to comment about what struck them as profound about their piece of work, what they personally brought to the piece, and the message they would like to share with viewers. Their utterly guileless and refreshingly candid remarks, in pertinent part, are paraphrased below:


-David E. Tolchinsky, co-curator, playwright/director, “Where’s the Rest of Me” said that he’d had a "talkback "with his co-curator, playwright Brett Neveu, video curator Melika Bass, playwright/actor Grant James Varjas and playwright Lisa Dillman. They agreed that the works “all came out of personal experience, that it’s not just about disease, but how we cope with disease- through personal connections and with humor. My spouse and sometime collaborator Debra Tolchinsky commented during the talkback that all the plays contain humor. Indeed, humor is how we cope with EVERY difficult situation in life. My play is a strong affirmation of a person's ability to overcome illness. Brett’s play is about how the small triumphs help us deal with big problems; again, personal connection. We wanted the evening to be hopeful”.

Filmmaker/video curator Melika Bass, Co-curator/playwright Brett Neveu, Playwright Lisa Dillman/Playwright/actor Grant James Varjas, Co-curator/playwright/director David E. Tolchinsky: photo courtesy of Doro Boehme


-Tim Newell, actor, “Where’s the Rest of Me”, virtually channeled Spalding Rockwell Gray, an American actor and writer known for his autobiographical monologues that he wrote and performed for the theater in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Newell actually looked like Gray, and, in the scene where he reenacts Gray’s suicide, to my astonishment, he wept large tears. Newell explained that he is, at bottom,  a (self-taught) character actor; "this was the foundation." He then was given the right material to work with, and sought out the rest. He did research into this individual- he actually noticed and adopted a raised brow, lifted shoulders, and the types of triggers that would cause Gray to lift a brow or raise his shoulders. He listened to the recorded monologues, and made efforts to capture the precise dialect- Rhode Island infused with New York. He tried “to color David’s words” with the inflections and what he learned about Gray. He “tried to capture the essence of the man” in the service of the play. This is by no means his only experience with such efforts- Newell told me about his one-man show, "I BECOME Jack Benny”.

“What’s profound about the piece is that Tolchinsky is letting us into a little chapter of his life that’s transformative. It’s the only narrative piece in the installation series, a feat unto itself.” He likes Dave’s language a lot- "He has a great gift for creating dialogue for actors”.  On a couple of occasions, he was “overcome” by what they “tapped into”.  Newell, no stranger to depression, self-recrimination and the dark nights that souls may stray into, hopes the piece and his work help make people aware of what such lives can be like.

Tm Newell; photo courtesy Billy Surges

-Andrew L. Saenz, actor, “Psychodramatic”

Saenz plays the part of “Sam”, the new live-in boyfriend of “Ellie”, a googling hypochondriac who decides he has leprosy, and invites their vet-neighbor down at 3AM to examine him. From the get-go, he felt the script was “hilarious”, but beyond that, it “portrays the underlying consequences of this mental illness- a particular kind of hypochondria” and how it impacts the relationship. “The couple has just moved in together and perhaps they don’t know as much as they should about each other, and that comes immediately to the fore”.  Saenz gave “a great deal of thought” to what the man in this relationship might do as a result of what he learns from this alarming episode. He decided, quite big-heartedly, I couldn’t help but feel, that this “was not a sunset kind of thing”, but rather “a major road bump”- and Sam was “willing to pay the price”, and stay with Ellie.

What struck a personal chord for Saenz was the initial risk in moving in together and then realizing, “Oh, no, what have I done?!" The fact that Sam would stay and “work through it” is “the price of admission for any commitment”. Personally, he raises money for an organization that promotes wellness; he’d suggest people with these problems “get some help”- he is “a major proponent for people reaching out for mental health”.

Andrew L.Saenz; photo courtesy of Tyler Core

-Playwright/actor Grant James Varjas, “Kiss Alive”

Initially, Varjas didn’t intend to star in this piece, about 2 impaired brothers. One is an alcoholic, the other a “probable bipolar with schizophrenic features , probably mismedicated and misusing meds for years”,  who fancies he sees Gene Simmons of Kiss' face- "the Demon"- reflected back at him as his own in the mirror. However, it was “never awkward” separating actor and writer” because the director, Shade Murray, “knew when and how to ask the right questions”. The larger issues here surround how someone might feel about “a rock star-superhero, the way they live in and leave their bodies- inspiration by means of escape”.  In Gene Simmons case, he “came from Hungary with his mother escaping the Nazis and immersed himself in the monsters and the saviours in comic books”.

It has been very empowering for generations of children who feel different- “and we all do” to find solace in these dreams and fantasies. Varjas himself is from a “repressed Connecticut family, where talking about anything is excrutiating”, and regrets how expensive it can be to seek therapy. “It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the external world and to engage in social media. It’s so easy for what is happening to people in front of you to get lost.” We must ”check in” with those we love and those who are hurting.

Grant James Varjas; photo courtesy of Ryan Borque

-Melika Bass, filmmaker, creator of the films used in “Kiss Alive”and “O Happy Dagger," as well as the video episodes “Constrict”, “Armor”, “Release”and “Expand”

The four video episodes are based on the work of controversial psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich, and, while complete in themselves for this series, are also to be used for a larger project about the place of his medical theories in medicine. They involve two women non-interacting inside and outside a strangely familiar house. Bass makes films “for watching in theaters” and also "installations for museums, arts centers, film festivals, etc”. She works with a “small crew” of 5-10 people” and “writes, directs, edits”.

Filmmaker/video curator Melika Bass; photo courtesy Ray Pride

 This piece was commissioned. She decided to make it about women, “given the dynamics Reich had with women” and chose 2 fine actresses, Selma Banich, a Zagreb, Croatia-based performer, and Penelope Hearne of New York. This is not the first project she’s worked on involving mind/body issues, and she did an incredible amount of research into Reich. “Reich felt that we construct body armor that’s physiological based on experiences, even common social experiences; it begins when we are very young. A lot of new-Age and contemporary movements and ideas about repression stereotypes borrow from him, especially the feeling of being able to put together intricately current customized treatment”.  More important to remember was that Reich “wanted to cure cancer, to prevent illness, that he was scapegoated, martyred, and jailed”.

Selma Banich; photo courtesy of Nikola Predovic

The videos are “more” than just illustrative; “they do not necessarily illustrate” his theories. In fact, Bass didn’t actually write the piece. The “sympatico” performers “created the context together”, giving the videos “a kind of fluidity”. She set up the filming in the suburbs- the house itself was built in the early 50’s. The videos deal with “absurdity, being on a retreat, doing prescribed things, inertness, frustration, and separation. The characters were alienated from themselves. What was profound about the project was the “ongoing intimacy of the actual production”, and the “superchallenging” nature of the work, involving “the dance of trust and frustration and working instinctually”. Bass is “very precise” about “the composition of the frame” and “setting up the scenes for them to be urgent”. Instead of working with a script here,  Bass created content with both actors so that every shot had room for precise behaviors, as well as surprise actions, to unfold.“There’s something  Reichian about it”, she exclaimed! The house becomes an Orgone accumulator! (a box devised by Reich  to trap energy that could be harnessed in supposedly groundbreaking approaches to medical illness- they were banned and he was jailed for continuing to sell them). Bass is interested in the idea of new treatments for mind/body illnesses.

Penelope Hearne; photo courtesy Penelope Hearne

"The mask you wear becomes your face". Lawrence Ferlinghetti


To see this fascinating series, get tickets now at A RedOrchidtheatre website







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