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Standing on my Knees @ The Gardner Stages

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Meg Wallace as Catherine in Standing on my Knees

Back when I was taking acting classes in the Valley, I had a classmate who wasn’t that talented, but was nevertheless very taken with his own ability. One day, I looked into his car and saw that it was a complete disaster area in the backseat. When I commented on the mess, he shot back, “It’s not messy – it’s artistic.”

While the line between art and chaos has never completely clear, it seems like it will always be an endless source of fascination for some who are creatively inclined, or wish they were more creatively inclined. John Olive’s play, Standing on my Knees, centers around this very obsession.

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In the press release, the main character Catherine is described as a “beautiful young poet,” squirting into the already murky water where mental illness meets creativity the childish, selfish and completely romanticized idea of a lovely but tortured woman. It's this notion of the damsel in distress, which is a pretty familiar twist (think Gwyneth Paltrow as another crazy Catherine in the film adaptation of “Proof”) that casts a queasy rose-colored haze over what, in this case, is an otherwise compelling story about schizophrenia.

In the iteration of Olive's play now showing at the Gardner Stages in West Hollywood, Meg Wallace plays the part of Catherine. The play opens with Catherine hopped up on Thorazine following a stint at a mental institution. The question is, can she live a fulfilled life as a poet while rendered somewhat numb and definitely less expressive by prescription drugs?

The role is well-written and rich, but Wallace doesn't put her gut into it until towards the end. She comes close to the creative constipation that can be caused by anti-psychotic drugs, but for most of the first act she seems to get in her own way of making it across the finish line in terms of emotional depth.

That's not to say we don't get glimpses into what's going on in the mind of her character, or where she goes when her eyes glaze over. When her lover discloses a deep personal truth, Catherine comes out with, "If this were group we'd be giving you a standing ovation." It's awkward, touching and painful, and it's the first moment that she takes the audience into her world, where the most recent human connection she's had was in group therapy.

Barbara Keegan plays Catherine's therapist Joanne and steals every scene she's in. Her sincere, calm and caring portrayal is the backbone of the show. Even as Catherine's masked, wand wielding hallucination later on, she's completely committed.

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Brian Barth seems a little miscast as Catherine's lover, the uptight, blinded-by-ambition businessman Robert. Barth has a genuine, almost awkward lovability about him that doesn't match Robert's boardroom persona. But he runs with the role, and his sane to Catherine's insane also provides a strong foundation for Wallace to bounce off, especially towards the end of the play.

The lack of buildup to Catherine's eventual psychotic break is too bad, because when she does lose it, it's staggering. Fully supported by the rest of the cast, she holds absolutely nothing back and unleashes what would have been nice to see sooner--the struggle with downright madness that her character is written around.

The question of whether chaos creates art or art creates chaos (or neither) is never fully answered, just like the question of whether my friend's car was a direct result of his wildly artistic personality or not. But the actors do eventually get to the root of Olive's questions about mental illness, what normal means and what one is willing to sacrifice to create art.

Standing on my Knees
Gardner Stages
1501 N. Gardner St.
West Hollywood, CA 90046

Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. thru February 17
$15.00

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Tickets
323-860-6569
www.Plays411.com

Photo by Amy McKenzie