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Transformation in the Asylum

Catharine Christof | October 11, 2016, 10:57 AM


2016-10-06-22-15-10Il Dolce Theater Company at Highways Performance Space presents: “The Colonel and The Birds.” Written by Hristo Boytchev. Directed by Neno Pervan.

For me – and I think for many of us – the theatre has to prove its worth by being something genuinely extraordinary. Something that means that if I do choose to leave the comfort of my home (sofa) that I’ll have a real opportunity to engage with something so vital and alive visceral that my opinions and beliefs are at risk of being changed. Last night, I wasn’t disappointed. Il Dolce’s production of The Colonel and the Birds – currently playing at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica was a piece of total theatre. It’s apparently one of the better-known plays of Bulgarian playwright, Hristo Boychev (I’d never heard of him – but I have every reason to believe the director, Neno Pervan).

I was present at something that was utterly engrossing not just because of the insanity of the story (and the story about insane people), but because of the completely immersive world the ensemble created. Their bodies were involved, their minds, the whole of their vulnerable beings were there – in front of me. The result was an experience that not only made me question my biases about madness (cultural? personal?), but also made me feel deep compassion for those that are the “left behind.” We’re all painfully aware of the horrors that war wreaks on civilians. But what about those who can’t take care of themselves? What happens to them? And what about those whose infirmities – for whatever reason – are in their minds?

Il Dolce Theatre Company’s production is not a dance piece – but it demands such total physicality from its actors that it became like a choreographed piece of insane reality. Getting the most out of the evening actually came down to a choice that I had to make. Because, at first I really didn’t want to engage with these insane creatures, stranded in the Balkans and stranded in their own minds. But the physicality of the actors, to a man and to a woman (and also to a man-woman), and the sheer virtuosity of their total commitment forced me to care about them. As the differences between the characters fell away scene by scene, so too did my own barriers to caring about them. And they – the most unlikely team of the war-damaged, war deranged and forgotten creatures –touched me.

The performances are worth mentioning for the virtuosity and the total immersion of the actors. It was truly an ensemble piece – led by the deeply charismatic Ian Salazar as the Colonel, encouraging transformation for the inmates with applied military precision. In no particular order, other performances worth mentioning include: Cameron Kauffman as Titch. Kaufman is utterly engaging, trapped in her own childlike and apparently innocent madness, but willing to play along with everyone else’s story. Lauren Elyse Buckley’s sexy nymph Meral required – and delivered – a sense of whole body engagement. Katie Robbins’ Mata Hari wields a potently aggressive sexy power – as if she’d been running the show for ages – that is, until the Colonel wakes up. Annalisa Cochrane’s Nina is trapped in her own Chekhovian nightmare. Cochrane does a wonderfully sensitive take on the ethereal loop-tape of an actress condemned to always deliver the same story and the same lines. Irish Giron’s Teresa is an extraordinary, clear and compassionate vision of transgender insanity. In Giron’s work, Teresa’s centre of gravity has shifted so high in his body that we get a visceral sense of the history that he/she might have been running from, and additional nuances further suggest why he/she would choose to “become” a nun. Alexa Vellanoweth’s Doctor, might be the sane one, but she too is trapped in her mind and in her own version of hellish reality. The Doctor’s honesty from early on in the play does make us wonder who she really was before the war. Vellanoweth’s honesty as a performer gives this an even richer framing, and her clear and direct addresses to the audience help frame the changing picture of reality.

When the Colonel’s vision for activity sets off a transformation in the asylum, ultimately the characters find more in common with each other than that which had previously separated them. That shared vision creates a bond – and a space that allows for us to share in some of that transformative journey too.

The Colonel and The Birds – Highways Performance Space, Santa Monica.
October 7th to October 30th. Friday and Saturday at 8pm & Sunday matinees at 3pm. For tickets & directions, go to





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