Charlie and Algernon
Introducing the Tech PlayersBy Amy Meadows
Charlie and Algernon
Lipchitz Courtyard, Building 14
April 11-14, 8 p.m.
Based on the novel “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes
Directed by Jean Marie Barnwell ’03
Starring Cemocan S. Yesil ’03, Jean Marie Barnwell ’03, Sephir D. Hamilton ’01,
James J. O’Donnell ’01, and Ashley S. Robinson ’05
When asked what MIT is missing, most students will answer sleep, or fun, or more warm weather. Few, if any students will reply that MIT needs a new musical theater group. Yet, Cemocan S. Yesil ’03 and Jean Marie Barnwell ’03 saw things differently, so they created The Tech Players, in their own words, “a bold new theater group.”
“Charlie and Algernon” takes place in 1957 New York. We first are introduced to Charlie Gordon (Yesil), a developmentally disabled man who has been abandoned by his family. He does menial work in a bakery while attending night classes with Ms. Alice Kinnian (Barnwell). Ms. Kinnian brings him to Drs. Nemur and Strauss (Sephir Hamilton ’01 and James J. O’Donnell) for a controversial surgery to reverse the brain damage done by his genetic disorder, PKU.
The role of Charlie is a dual role: Charlie before and after his surgery. Before the surgery, Charlie grasps little of the complexity of the world inhabited by other people. When the doctors ask him to use his imagination on the Rorschach test, he ponders and replies, “I see a big inkblot!” After the surgery, Ms. Kinnian and Charlie begin to kindle a romance. Charlie also goes back to work at the bakery, only to see a darker side of humanity that he could not before his operation.
Yesil does an excellent job with the weighty role, one that requires significant versatility. In the number “Charlie and Algernon,” he proves that he can even act with a mouse as his sidekick. As the pre-surgery Charlie, Yesil expresses his character’s joys and frustrations as a child would. His ticks, facial mannerisms, and coordination all expressed Charlie’s distance from “normality.” The post-surgery Charlie grows to be a complex character, and Yesil takes advantage of these new aspects and contrasts them with Charlie’s original level of development.
At first reluctant to enter into a relationship with a former student, Charlie’s romantic interest Alice, played by Barnwell, falls for Charlie and tries to take care of him even when it becomes apparent that Charlie’s surgery will regress. Barnwell’s performance seemed especially tentative during her first scenes in which she was only Charlie’s teacher. By the second act, she had warmed to the role, and her acting and emotions grew in depth.
Most of the supporting characters were fairly static and flat, with few exceptions. One of the exceptions is Dr. Nemur. Already burdened by questions of whether Charlie was happier when he was disabled, he is racked with guilt when Charlie begins to regress. Hamilton convinces the audience of his sincerity while grappling with questions about playing God.
Ashley S. Robinson ’05, playing bakery owner Mrs. Donner, used her character’s ambivalence to begin to create doubt about whether Charlie’s surgery has been for his character’s betterment. Robinson’s character was genuinely pained at the prospect of letting Charlie go.
Jeremy J. Sawicki ’99 carried much of the burden for the music of “Charlie and Algernon” as the sole accompanist. Sawicki handled the various moods of the music for the play adeptly, bringing out the tone in each piece. While his music faded into the background during many numbers in the play, he was showcased in the beginning and after intermission with highlights.
The production of “Charlie and Algernon” has many unique aspects. One is the theater-in-a-tent idea. The Lipchitz Courtyard by Building 14 generally sits dormant, enclosed as it is on all sides by buildings. Yet, the first several nights of the production were particularly chilly. Perhaps the idea is better suited to August than April, but it won points for originality.
Second, The Tech Players decided to take on a highly unconventional play, one that centers on physical and mental disability and asks questions about medical ethics. The sheer enthusiasm of the cast made up for many of the failings of the script.
The individuals in the play took up a challenging subject and lived up to The Tech Player’s motto as a bold new theater group.