Autism is, almost by definition, not an easy affliction to dramatize. The neurological disorder manifests itself as impaired social functioning and limited verbal communication, and drama is an art form that uses performative social interaction and language to create a narrative. The new production Inside I, currently at 7 Stages’ black box space through May 8, tackles the seemingly insoluble problem in an interesting way. Through the use of puppetry, projection and inventive stagecraft, the show tells a moving story from the perspective of a young man suffering from autism.
Inside I gives us the story of Ben, and we’re introduced to the character by first seeing only his outline traced and then cut out from a thin sheet of paper. The character, we learn as he steps out from the hole in the paper, is represented on stage by a puppet operated by a small team of puppeteers. During the course of the play, we follow Ben from birth to early childhood to adolescence. The puppet itself is fitted with a camera inside its head (an inside eye, so to speak), and the images of other characters — often played by human actors, sometimes by other puppets — and the things Ben sees are projected on a screen behind the action through a live video feed.
The show, devised by Michael Haverty and Erwin Maas, also utilizes mobile flat screen televisions to suggest various locales. Placed on two sides of seated characters and showing images of an Atlanta highway, the set becomes a car in motion, or showing images of rows of cereal boxes and the inside of a cart, the set becomes the interior of a grocery store, and so on.
The character Ben, whom we follow as he grows up, is fascinated by his mom’s and then his own cell-phone camera, and we’re often confronted by multiple layers of images: the live performance, what Ben sees, what he photographs, the images on the screens, all of it perhaps suggesting the autism sufferer’s sense of distance and alienation from the physical world. Still, the simple story that unfolds is a universal one about encountering the world with varying level of success; a trip to the grocery store becomes a joyful triumph and a bullying encounter at school a tragic defeat. The look of the show is compelling, but all of it is made especially moving by the human performances, most notably from Reay Kaplan as Ben’s mom, who brings humanity to the character’s sense of exasperation and enduring love.
Inside I presents an intriguing portrayal of autism, but it’s difficult for an outsider to know if what the depiction evokes is accurate. The show seeks to chip away at a mystery — what it might be like to inhabit an autistic mind and body — and though the results are compelling, the essential mystery will always remain intact. Still, the ambitious show along with an autobiographical pre-show short performance I Direct Myself from 7 Stages’ Samuel Joseph Gross, who is on the autistic spectrum, present an intriguing and compelling glimpse at a parallel world, one very different from our own, but one that’s still imbued with a recognizable drive for autonomy, dignity and human contact.
(Photo by Stungun Photography)