Fact, Fiction, And A Case Of The Fits

Anna is having those ticks again, and this time she’s bringing them to YouTube. They start small, as her face fills the camera’s frame. Those eyes, so sad and saucer-like. A deer, willingly caught in the headlights. 

“Haaa, haaaa, he,” she blurts mid-introduction, her head jerking to the side with the sounds. The words tumble out. She is Anna. She is desperate. She’s an actress who can’t realize her dreams now. More sad eyes. With the camera as her witness she swears she just doesn’t understand why her body is turning against her.

But then again, none of us do. Right?

Such is the central question in Blake Hackler’s 2015 This Sweet Affliction, on at the Yale Cabaret now through Saturday night. Directed by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie and proposed by Stephanie Machado, the play asks how far we’ll go for recognition and notoriety, and how dear the price of short-lived fame may be.

 Stephanie Machado as Anna. Photos Courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

Stephanie Machado as Anna. Photos Courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

Set in the small town of Parker, Tex., This Sweet Affliction grabs viewers from its outset, exposing them to a grisly end before pressing reset, and revealing how everything went so wrong. Anna (Stephanie Machado) is an aspiring actress, juggling rehearsals with a daily insult-packed rant for the school’s cheerleaders. While they have their clique, Anna has hers: a sycophantic follower named Morgan (Patricia Fa’ausa), who will do just about anything Anna suggests.  

It’s just a normal, cliquey high school—until rejection rears its ugly head over the Anna’s Christmas break, and she’s denied the life she’s been wishing for. Something dark brews onstage; we know things are about to go downhill. But how far downhill, and how precipitously, is something no one can expect. What follows is a trip into illnesses real and manufactured, with a team of doctors who haven't gotten that far from Hysteria diagnoses after all. 

This is more than a modern retelling of The Crucible, although it has a few direct Miller references folded in. A pendant to Anna Rose Holmer’s 2016 The Fits, it’s a much-needed work on addictive technology, tenuous connections in the digital age, emphatic illness, toxic female friendships, and a need for external validation. 

 Rachel Kenny, Courtney Jamison and Marié Botha as cheerleaders Debbie, Megan and Bailey. Photos courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

Rachel Kenny, Courtney Jamison and Marié Botha as cheerleaders Debbie, Megan and Bailey. Photos courtesy Yale Cabaret. 

Alternative facts, popularity struggles, the cattiest of mean girls, and Munchausens Syndrome are al on the menu, and that’s just a jumping off point. There’s also a strange degree of truth, a 2012 news story about girls at New York's Le Roy High School who all contracted a mysterious case of fainting, seizures, and sustained twitches in a number of weeks.      

At the Cab it is in nimble and extremely able hands. Reprising the rude, dark humor she had as Goneril in Young Jean Lee’s LEAR earlier this year, McKenzie is the right director for this play, giving viewers a reason to look in a work about the act of looking, and insatiable desire to be looked at. She and producer Caitlin Volz have an eye for the strange and the voyeuristic (and the meeting of the two): informal yet choreographed YouTube clips, cheerleading routines and intricately blocked theater all feature prominently, filling the not-so-real world of high school with more fakery, falsehood, and chances for escape.   

With slick video, sound and lighting, they have made Parker, Tex. into something foreign but relatable, a stop in small town America with a gossipy population and one central high school. While some regional jokes don’t quite land with the actors or the audience—Texans’ fierce loyalty to their state is played up for laughs, where deadpan seems like it might be more effective—the world is one we can believe in, and squirm uncomfortably trying to get out of. 

 Machado as Anna and Rachel Kenny as her mom. Photos courtesy of the Yale Cabaret. 

Machado as Anna and Rachel Kenny as her mom. Photos courtesy of the Yale Cabaret. 

Sarah Nietfeld has captivated the space, with a minimalist but meaningful set that becomes a character itself. Actors, four of whom play multiple roles, are placed on raised platforms throughout the audience, weaving through occupied tables and chairs on their way to and from the stage. There, a set of mirror-like panels are assembled to hide and expose characters as they steal their moment in the spotlight.

There’s the sense that they are always performing for somebody—which of course they are. Herin Kaputkin has landed a slam-dunk with costume design, leaning into references from Mean Girls, The Fits, fast fashion, and high school mascotry that has celebrated a sort of rebirth in recent years.    

But McKenzie’s greatest weapon—it really is a weapon, in the case of this show—is a rock-solid cast of frenemies. It is an intensely physical show, reliant on routines where one must follow the leader. Machado is frightening and manic, exposing the lengths to which one will go for external validation. Fa’ausa relies on understatement until she doesn’t, coming into her own as she understands what it takes to overshadow and outlive her friend’s fame. Doubling as Anna’s ex-best-friend and past-dwelling drama teacher, Marié Botha propels the play, a sort of voice that resonates for all of us as it urges Anna to dig deeper, and up the stakes.  

Indeed, the question is not if these ladies are possessed, but by what. The fear of falling too fast, or never rising to the very top? The specter of the tragic hero, or the urge to become the tragic heroine? The looming thought that everything is okay as long as someone, anyone, is watching. 

Or the thought that if you try hard enough, maybe you’ll get a chance to start again. To take it from the top, sit back, and press record one more time. 

Remaining performances of This Sweet Affliction take place this Friday and Saturday (Nov. 10 & 11) at 8 and 11 p.m. at the Yale Cabaret on Park Street. Ticket and show information at the Cab’s website.