A Punk Lobotomy Musical Pleasantly Rammed Into the Skull

Aug. 8, 2016
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David Kaye in Lobotomy: The Musical!
David Kaye in Lobotomy: The Musical!

This summer, local writer/director Chris Holoyda presents a refreshing, little punk rock musical. Lobotomy: The Musical! feels like Rocky Horror playing with The Ramones in some dark corner of history. The plot centers around Dr. Walter Freeman--an American physician who performed lobotomies on mental patients in hopes of treating them. 

The show is a small, intimate, little piece of musical aggression pounded through an actual historical figure who is cast in a surprisingly appropriate light shooting through the murky explosiveness of a punk aesthetic. Freeman is not exactly the historical figure one would expect to see on a musical theater stage. Prior to the advent of psychopharmacology, he was trying to treat the organic aspects of mental illness at a time when the establishment preferred the “talking cure” of psychoanalysis. Holoyda focusses-in on the lead’s aggressive frustration with authority and paints this fictitious Dr. Freeman as a punk anti-hero trying to help people by sticking an ice pick into the eye and shoving it into the brain. (Honestly, what could possibly be more punk than that?) 

David Kaye plays Freeman with passion and compassion growling through a studied intellect. He has an earthiness that works in the role quite well. Very palpable energy and disgust. There is a dire desire for something more than the standard way of treating those who have been cast-off by society and forgotten by the mental health system. Aiding Freman in his endeavors is Dr. Watts, played here by a very emotionally endearing Sean Duncan. Holoyda frames Watts as The Voice of Reason to Freeman’s reckless passion--a role that Duncan covers with a steady sobriety--even when he’s portraying the character’s drunken moments. 

Also making notable appearances here is Amanda Eaton on a downward spiraling character arc as Freeman’s alcoholic wife. Nathan Danzer, Kara Penrose and Katie Katschke tackle the tricky job of portraying mental patients suffering from various disorders. If this show got anywhere near the kind of attention it deserved, there would probably be a lot of controversy over its portrayal of mental illness, which  COULD be seen as being offensive and insensitive. What’s great about the portrayals of Katschke, Penrose and Danzer is that they’re performed with equal parts sympathy, empathy and satire. To me it seemed as though the characters represented extremes of psychological issues EVERYONE faces. . . from hypersensitivity and neurotic obsessions to full-blown psychosis. One of the characters imagines a large fluffy, white rabbit is coming to get her. We see that rabbit. We understand the strange weight of what she’s going through and feel its absurdity. Then there’s that brief feeling of success when the treatment starts to work and she’s dancing with that large, plush bunny. Then things get worse...

The music is infectiously simple--an often inwardly violent kind of punk which makes direct reference to the Ramones, but features hints of so much else clinging around the corners. The production props-up an old-school punk sound with a very stripped-down stage and simple costuming. My favorite aspect of this aesthetic bleeds through the pacing of the show. For all its aggression and focus on the darker end of 20th century health care, this is still basically a standard American musical. The pacing, though, completely ignores the traditional plot structure of a traditional American musical. Coming-in at substantially less than two hours without intermission, it’s got the frenetic restlessness of punk. 

Rather than carefully crafting a long, tedious story that features all of the usual sorts of superfluous plotting and plodding with characters who are entirely tangential to the central themes of the story, Holoyda’s Lobotomy keeps everything close to its restless pulse. The show is following the life of one man’s work--his rise and fall. It doesn’t need to be anything more than that. Lobotomy succeeds where so many other, far more popular and successful musicals fail: it knows the story it wants to tell and it tells that story--ramming it right into your skull through your eyes. I see a lot of musicals. Though I can appreciate what they’re trying to do and can speak to whether or not they’re doing it in the space of 300 words of printed text, I don’t find a personal appreciation for them all that much. On a personal level, I’d love a lot more musicals if a lot more musicals were like Lobotomy. 

Lobotomy: The Musical! runs through Aug. 13 at the Alchemist Theatre on 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Alchemist Theatre online

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