Seven strangers wake up in a psychiatric hospital, unsure of how they arrived there and even more confused about whether they will be able to leave. The Emory Chinese Theater Club’s (ECTC) captivating fall production, “The Insanity,” follows these seven individuals as they desperately attempt to prove that they deserve to return to the outside world.
Directed by Caroline Wang (20C), the play was performed in the Burlington Road Building’s Black Box Theater from Nov. 9 to 17. Written by Chinese film director Rao Xiaozhi, “The Insanity” takes place entirely in room 203 of a mental hospital, where the seven protagonists believe they are being wrongfully held. The seven protagonists quickly realize that they are being held in a psychiatric ward and discover that they are being watched. They repeatedly attempt to show the hospital’s warden that they are sane, but only devolve further into chaos by doing so. The play constantly reference the characters’ perpetual state of being observed as they often talk directly to an imaginary surveillance camera (addressing the audience in doing so). As the characters attempt to prove their sanity, they continually restructure their community and choose new leadership. The ensuing power struggles underscore conflicts between the different social classes represented by each character.
The seven characters — An Xi (Heng Chen, 21C), Lily (Zilu Wang, 21B), Han Mushan (Jiarong Fan, 21C), Li Zheng (Dading Shi, 21C), Xiao Naien (Qifan Wang, 22C), Ma Rui (Tianyu Yang, 21B) and Yang Meng (Zichong He, 21C) — each have their time to shine in the plot. They come from different backgrounds and social classes, but are united by their common desire to escape the hospital. However, this unity quickly breaks down as their escape attempts fail and different individuals try to dominate.
Wang and Yang stand out from the rest of the cast as elderly teacher Xiao and lawyer Mai, respectively. Wang adeptly characterizes Xiao, hunching his back, coughing and speaking in a slow drawl. Yang is hilarious as Mai who constantly reminds the audience of his profession, cutting off other characters with shouts of “objection!” Zichong He also impresses as the unlicensed taxi driver Meng. Although Meng initially seems unthreatening, he eventually begins to violently break down, a development which He depicts realistically and with nuance.
The play was presented in Chinese with English translations projected on the back wall of the theater. Balancing reading the lines and watching the play was disorienting at first, but it quickly became manageable. However, during heated moments when characters spoke over each other, it was impossible for non-Chinese speakers to follow all the dialogue.
The play used light to a great effect, alternating between an ambient white light and a yellow spotlight to enhance each scene. At one point in the play, the characters each deliver a monologue to the unseen surveillance camera, pleading their case for release from the hospital. The characters were individually illuminated during their monologues, isolated on an otherwise pitch-black stage, allowing audience members to focus on each character.
While the play’s portrayal of mental illness is cliche, it compensates for its reliance on archaic stereotypes with the genuine personalities of its characters. The play seemed to want to make a bold statement about society’s treatment of the mentally ill, but that statement was either lost in translation or unclear to begin with.
The play also touched on sexual assault in a scene where He delivered a truly unsettling performance, exploding with a violent rage that seemed all too palpable. Although the scene was well-acted, it had little to say about sexual assault itself. Meng’s actions were more of a plot device than an opportunity for social commentary.
A twist in the play’s final act changes the audience’s understanding of the characters but fails to excite. The discovery is unsurprising and reuses tropes already covered by decades of media exploring mental illness. That being said, the twist was well-executed by the actors and gives the play a fresh focus in its home stretch.
While the twist is uninspired, “The Insanity” delivered a satisfying, if expected, conclusion. The community built between these seven characters is tested and they make a collective sacrifice which leads to a justified resolution. The play’s final moments are unsurprising, but they are made worthwhile by earnest performances and effective staging.
Overall, “The Insanity” was an enjoyable show with enough humor to balance out its darker moments. It didn’t offer a groundbreaking take on mental illness, but it was respectful in its treatment of such sensitive content. “The Insanity” doesn’t redefine its genre, but it entertains within its boundaries.