A Manic Panic

Review of How We Died of Disease-Related Illness at Yale Cabaret

In the talk-back after the Friday night early show of How We Died of Disease-Related Illness, by Miranda Rose Hall, actor Niall Powderly, who plays Neil, an infected social scientist, characterized the show as “Mel Brooks with a point.” I can’t do any better than that.

As that descriptive phrase should suggest, the show, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova, is wacky and zany, full of a cartoonish sense of human interaction that zigs and zags through antagonism, togetherness, arch absurdity, naked emotion, slapstick, song, and skits “in the manner of….” But the play is also disturbingly relevant. As the playbill notes from co-artistic director David Bruin point out, a new epidemic disease—Zika—is even now gaining a global profile. Hall wrote the play while suffering heebie-jeebies over the Ebola outbreak—which, one recalls, did seem to reach Yale Medical—and, while the suffering caused by infectious and often fatal disease is anything but amusing to those affected, the surrounding reactions, from our media and from “the general public” often look like sit-com material, sans laugh-track. Hall’s play feeds that kind of hysterical thinking—a parody paranoia—back to us on an endless loop: we stand ever-ready to be victimized by our fears and phobias. We push a button and summon a media to push our buttons.

Everyone in How We Died of Disease-Related Illness is working very hard on a very shallow set, with the action spilling out into the aisles, so to speak. There’s Jenelle Chu as Hannah, a seemingly unflappable nurse who spirals through a wide-range of mood swings, while all the time wearing a look of scientific neutrality, almost like a hysterical Spock. As the stricken researcher, Powderly hyperventilates so authentically you begin to hope a real medic is somewhere nearby, and his show-stopping “big production number” about disease—as, more or less, the life-changer we’ve all been waiting for—is hilariously over-the-top. As Bill, a medical assistant who arrives looking for a party and stays for the death sequences, Taylor Barfield maintains an upbeat focus while all hell is breaking loose. Then there’s Lisa (Rachel Shuey), a late-comer to the scene and an interesting wrinkle for the play’s ultimate aims. As a “martyr” and proselytizing rabble-rouser—particulary for CLITS (Cats Living In Tragic Situations)—Lisa brings to the mayhem a touch of media-ized mania. When she faces into the camera with flags waving behind her, she seems the culmination of the play’s many quiz-show inspired questions about the emblems of our nation’s state identities—the birds, mottos, dances, trees, and, yes, muffins. Why not a “state disease,” a “state malaise,” a “state cause”?

Too much can’t be said about Juliana Canfield as the mercurial Trisha. She opens the show as a fresh-faced janitor only too pleased at being paid to clean. Throughout the play she shows up repeatedly as a kind of Chorus—moving along to food prep or calisthenics or the intercom or HR or the clergy or a medical professional about to run for governor—and, in each guise, she adds an air of rational usefulness, the kind of thing we tend to expect from the medical profession. At the same time, however, Canfield’s Trisha retains a gleam in her eye that speaks of the kind of earnest pathology found in conspiracy theorists and reality-TV hosts. She’s us when our “first do no harm” helpfulness is no help at all, when our efforts to defeat fear seem to spawn only dumbed-down bromides and homilies of helplessness. And she also plays a one-eyed murderous cat.

Hall’s ear for the unique mixtures of American inanity are nowhere more evident than in Trisha’s monologues, but the hyper dialogues between Neil and Hannah have their share of odd twists and turns, and Lisa’s “vamping” during Bill’s effort to clean up the carnage takes aim at the saving grace supposedly found in creating unreal situations to comment upon reality, generally called “theater.”

Sound effects from Frederick Kennedy are real enough to make unsettled stomachs queasy, while other “special effects”—such as the excretion of guacamole—are ridiculously inept. At times the show feels like live television, aided by a camera whose projections are shown on screens strategically placed in the Cab space, including comical close-ups of the cast at their most wide-eyed.

Busy, brash and bold, How We Died of Disease-Related Illness is a panic.


How We Died of Disease-Related Illness
By Miranda Rose Hall
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Scenic Designer: Zoe Hurwitz; Costume Designer: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Sound Design and Original Music: Frederick Kennedy; Projection Designer: Brittany Bland; Technical Director: Stephanie Waaser; Stage Manager: David Clauson; Producer: Ruoran Li (Kathy)

Cast: Taylor Barfield, Juliana Canfield, Jenelle Chu, Niall Powderly, Rachel Shuey

Yale Cabaret
February 4-6, 2016