Performance Reviews

OCD: A mental health awareness play done right (REVIEW)

Disorienting. Dizzying. Disorder. KLPAC’s latest production OCD puts on a show strange to us but devastatingly accurate for its sufferers.

My first impression of OCD was that, maybe, it might have been a little much. At some points disorienting and dizzying, the average theatre-goer can find themselves in danger of being overwhelmed with the experience. But perhaps this is exactly what this devised theatre piece wanted us to feel. The repetitive rituals, the intrusive thoughts, the stuttering over words and phrases that should make sense, but just aren’t arranged right. There is no way we can begin to understand what these sufferers go through.

But at least for one hour, we sit in silence and immerse ourselves in someone else’s lifelong obsessions and compulsions, as their fears become our fears.

Behind the Curtains on OCD

Many of us are guilty of saying ‘My OCD is acting up’ over having our clothes folded in a particular way or being particularly clean about washing our hands. In reality, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is a waking nightmare, as the production depicts in a poetic and painfully accurate fashion. It’s an anxiety disorder characterized by overwhelming paranoia that can lead to uncontrollable and obsessive thoughts, which can only be relieved by rituals you feel compelled to form – until the whole cycle starts again.

Director Ho Lee Ching made her name co-directing past productions like Still Taming and S’kolah but her solo directorial debut under The Actor’s Studio Seni Teater Rakyat is a stunner. It can be a hard pill to swallow for many audiences who don’t dabble in experimental theatre or prefer their narratives clean and relatively straightforward.

The cast of OCD with director Ho Lee Ching (L>R, Amanda Xavier, Emma Megan Khoo, Ho Lee Ching, Riena Aisya, Jun Vinh Teoh)

But what it may lack in coherence, it generously makes up for in its authenticity and storytelling that shoots straight for the heart. The play itself draws on her own real-life experiences as a lifelong sufferer of both OCD and Tourette’s Syndrome. In fact, two years ago after a particularly exhausting episode of completing her bedtime routine, the idea of doing a show about the disorder that plagued her life came to her as she lay, sleepless in bed.

And thus, a journey of awareness and enlightenment began, as Lee Ching began the play’s collaboration with the Malaysian Mental Health Association (MMHA) and with it, listened to a wealth of personal stories, both funny and tragic, from those who lived with OCD, severe anxiety and schizophrenia. This extensive research is obvious in the final product, as the spectrum of unique experiences and stories are sewn into the storyline with tenderness and care, encapsulating the terrors and loneliness that must come with learning to live a full life amidst mental chaos.

“There was a shift, suddenly”

The scenes are jarring. It is quiet, but only at first. Clothes, books, and assorted items are strewn across the floor. A single actress makes her way across the stage, hesitantly, aware of the dozens of eyes on her. And then, there is music.

Four people appear on the stage, each unaware of the other’s existence. One dances beautifully, weaving her way between the socks and shirts on the floor. Two embrace each other in a slow dance, locked in each other’s eyes and almost forgetting everything around them. And one recites the story of King Midas, who could not touch anything; not his food, his clothes or even his beloved wife, for fear that he would endanger her and turn her into gold.

To quote the very first line of the play, “There was a shift, suddenly.”

All peace is soon lost, as the characters become hectic and frenzied. They lose touch with themselves and with each other as they scramble to make the stage pristine, to remove every last vestige of themselves and each other and the soothing lilt of the accompanying live music is lost as it crescendos into something distorted and wild. All it takes is that little shift to send sufferers into the vicious cycle of obsessive thought and compulsive behavior, and we watch the minds of each character fracture. Thus, begins the story of OCD, a production made up of segmented pieces and interweaving narratives, each scene dedicated to different episodes of OCD and anxiety.

The sound masters Ian Francis & Coebar Abel

These transitions are marked by wonderful sound design by Coebar Abel and Ian Francis who control the entire show’s live music. Each incident is punctuated with a different theme – the sinister melodies underlying the sound of rushing water as the characters attempt to scrub themselves clean again and again or the thudding metallic sounds as characters mechanically follow their routines.

While the music tended to be drowned in the actor’s performances, as our eyes remained glued to their physical and spiritual breakdowns, it shone during the most extreme moments of the play. The audience could be lulled into security with bedtime lullabies or sit alert to attention as the distortions and the overwhelming amount of noise overtook even the character’s own screams.

The play’s transformative appeal wasn’t just limited to its soundtrack. One thing that caught me pleasantly by surprise was the play’s visual look, designed by esteemed scenographer Yusman Mokhtar. At first, a regular platform that served nothing more as a space for performing, big and blank enough for the actor’s various physical performances, the stage was transformed as we dove further into the depths of neurosis. Favourite examples of this are how actors were bathed in red light as they fought back their own schizophrenia, tossing from one side to another, as well as the lights of the stage’s each square light up to symbolize the characters finishing their ritual cleaning.

Stories Within Stories

But for all the visuals and sound design were worth, the emotional nature and full complexity of OCD was fleshed out in the actor’s performances. Amanda Xavier, Emma Khoo, Jun Vinh Teo and Riena Aisya excelled in portraying different ends of the disorder’s spectrum. Lee Ching’s expertise with physical theatre is optimized in the actor’s performances, as their perfectly synchronized movements and coordination fully emphasize sufferers’ almost robotic compulsions.

The characters’ movements are heavily symbolic – their coordinated movements are ritualistic and sacred and any break in them is an expression of freedom from their condition. A brilliant example of this is when the actors form a tight circle, crossing the stage in rigid coordinated movements and moving robotically as one, only for Vinh Teo to shake and jump, running around in circles before the others force him back inside and restarting their whole journey. They do this repeatedly as if to signify how trapping the disorder can feel even if you choose to resist it and as Vinh Teo escapes the final time and falls, only to rejoin the circle on his own free will, the message is clear: you cannot escape this disease. You will always come back to it.

The many stories and acts told throughout the play could come off random at first, stories like Emma reciting the intro to Star Wars: A New Hope again and again to herself for it to make sense or Riena fighting the overwhelming thoughts of “stab, murder, kill” recited eerily and to perfection by Amanda and Vinh Teo off stage. But upon going back and doing my research, these are just one of the many categories people with OCD can fall into. The washers, the counters, the checkers as well as the obsessive thoughts one must fight off like unwanted sexually explicit or violent images. In learning this, the play cuts even deeper to the bone as their performances bring these symptoms to something larger than life itself.

Personally, the chaotic randomness of this experimental production was perfect for telling the story of someone with OCD. Because it’s not a clean or linear or tidy disease we can happen to forget about. Each feeling is overwhelming and each thought becomes your entire world. Even the play’s movement becomes a story by itself, reminding us of the precision and repetition each obsessive-compulsive act needs. To perform a play about a crippling disorder can be tough but to evoke the feeling of that disorder for people who might not know anything about it and immerse them in that experience can be very difficult to pull off. OCD definitely impresses without coming off as preachy and is well worth your night.

Rating: 4/5

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