Saturday, July 23, 2016

'A mind is a terrible thing not to waste': Phoenix Theatre bends ours with Tom Horan's "Acid Dolphin Experiment'

The universe of expanded consciousness, as rendered in "Acid Dolphin Experiment.".
Beaded and berobed, Timothy Leary strolled onstage at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor nearly 50 years ago, placed a mat close to the audience, sat down upon it cross-legged, and proceeded to lecture freely on his invariable theme: Turn on, tune in, drop out.

He had barely started when a friendly shout came from the balcony: "Dr. Leary, please move back a few feet, We can't see you from up here." The apostle of LSD enlightenment readily complied. The choice was automatic: Sacrifice a little intimacy with those in good seats in order to accommodate all 4,000 favorably disposed attendees.

When you're in the business of marketing personal transformation, no corner of the market should be snubbed. Like (I'm guessing) nearly everyone in that audience, I had no intention of following the Leary path. In a cultural milieu thick with gurus, the eccentric professor registered as good Sixties entertainment. Contemplating the thrill of throwing everything over was part of the allure.

Leary's involvement with expanded consciousness thus had a political component that Dr. John C. Lilly's experiments lacked. The subject of Tom Horan's new play at the Phoenix Theatre shared an experimental path with Leary that took Lilly deeper and deeper within, where his battered grip on reality finally loosened irretrievably. Before then, when his evangelism was at its purest, it avoided Leary's celebrity posturing.

Dr. Lilly's visions carry both enlightenment and torment.
If you go to "Acid Dolphin Experiment" sometime over the next four weekends, informative illustrated panels mounted in the lobby are highly recommended for orientation to Lilly's life and his outré adventures in neuroscience. Lilly (no relation to the Indianapolis pharmaceutical dynasty) worked with dolphins, LSD, and isolation tanks in his quest to understand how the mind works.

These rich materials are colorfully exploited by Horan, Phoenix's playwright-in-residence and author of another recent premiere rhapsodizing darkly on a historical figure, "Typhoid Mary." The new play, which opened Thursday, is a spectacular introduction to Lilly's phantasmagoria.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the production stays afloat in large part on the work of the production team: technical direction by Jeffery Martin and Zac Hunter, lighting by Laura Glover, costumes and props by Emily McGee, and sound by Horan. Multisensory stimulation threads its way amid Horan's words. His treatment of scientific and historical reality deftly eschews didacticism. As seen Friday, "Acid Dolphin Experiment" immersed the audience in the ambiguity of Lilly's world, replicating in sight and sound the blurring of interior and exterior reality, erasing the lines between the "me" and the "not-me" as well as between verbal information and interpretation on the one hand and direct, unmediated experience on the other.

Like the Zen ephebe getting conked with a rice bowl when he dares to call the moon "moon" instead of silently pointing to Earth's natural satellite, the audience is instructed in the breakthroughs that letting go of words may provide. Or not. In any case, the lessons are often quite funny, because Horan cavorts on the jungle gym of words, too.

Messengers from beyond, or within, guide the dogged experimenter.
Three actresses in the ensemble, besides playing women in Lilly's "real" life, function as fragments of his consciousness and a girl group of backup intelligences. Twenty feet from intellectual stardom, often poking their heads through portholes like the old "Laugh-In" gang, they interrupt each other, moving words and phrases quickly into place like mosaic tiles.

Lilly thinks of them as both aliens and angels --- messengers who are not necessarily benign. They seem both controlling and haphazard, pretty much like the intersection of personality and the scientific process. Their varied duties are carried out winsomely, with a few virtuoso turns (including dolphin puppetry), by Lauren Briggeman, Jolene Mentink Moffatt, and Chelsey Stauffer.

A fourth emanation, one usually more menacing and sometimes provocatively masked, is played by Michael Hosp, drawing on stereotypes of authority figures, from Lilly's disapproving father to the suspicious, ungenerous U.S. government, interested mainly in military applications of Lilly's experiments.

I've saved for last the delectable performance of Joshua Coomer as Lilly. His face conveyed the anxiety and curiosity that motivate Lilly's obsession with the frontiers of neuroscience. Every gesture and vocal tone danced on the edge dividing responsible research from burgeoning mania. The natural resonance of his speaking voice carries, even in Lilly's descent into schizophrenia, poignant echoes of a brilliant scientist who simply wants to know more. When Lilly's final monologue settles down onto a hypnotic plateau, Coomer almost persuades you to pitch your tent there.

Turn on, tune in, drop out happens to be a six-word summary of John C. Lilly's career. The tragedy is that the way of psychotropic drugs removes the voluntary control that the mantra implies. Dr. Leary's sermonizing was based on an illusion. And recent brain research has shown that our minds, even free of toxic influences, make decisions a few seconds before we are conscious of them. Who's in charge here anyway? John C. Lilly never found out, and maybe we'll never know. In the meantime, "Acid Dolphin Experiment" will play hob with your perceptions, delivering fun and (probably) no damage.

[Photos by Joe Konz]

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