Last night, after I saw the Fringe show You Are Not Paris—presented by Jon Ferguson and Stages Theatre Company at the Mill City Clinic—someone asked me if it was a show for teens. I had to pause before answering. The cast members are almost all teens, the teens created the show in collaboration with Ferguson, and the show speaks to issues relevant to teens—but it’s not “for teens” in the sense that a show about high school zombies or adolescent angst is “for teens.” You Are Not Paris is by teens, for people.
The show is about psychological disorders, but it takes a tack that’s the exact opposite of the heavy-handed approach you might expect. The general theme is that having a psychological disorder is okay, but You Are Not Paris doesn’t sugarcoat the discomfort, confusion, and general oddness of having a mind that doesn’t work quite the way most other minds work.
With a touch as light as that of a feather duster, the show walks the audience through a succession of real-life disorders. The several cast members, in turn, take the roles of patients suffering from disorders involving such phenomena as thinking that you’re a cow, thinking that your twin sister is a complete stranger, and experiencing input to one sense (say, sight) as input to another (say, taste).
In other hands, this could be insufferably preachy or offensively wacky, but You Are Not Paris celebrates the truth and dignity of the patients’ conditions without being glib or simplistic. Life with a serious psychological disability, the show suggests, is very different than life without one—and though the show will certainly resonate for those who are living with disabilities, even those who aren’t will recognize the characters’ struggles as being fundamentally human. Everyone’s had the feeling that they aren’t being understood, don’t fit in, aren’t appreciated, are being held to unreasonable standards—teens, especially.
Like all of Ferguson’s shows, You Are Not Paris is spacious and beautiful both visually and conceptually. When the performers aren’t taking their turns as patients, they don lab coats and play scientists interviewing the patients; one runs a video camera, but its feed appears on a monitor upstage, revealing that the camera is not recording the proceedings clinically but is journeying subjectively across faces, lights, and other things that seem to strike the operator’s fancy. The performers also interact with a prerecorded video projection that’s used creatively and, often, amusingly. (One girl’s twin is played by an image of herself on the screen, and when the live performer misses a cue, the video projection offers to go back and start from the top. It’s just one of many self-referential moments that, while sometimes awkward, serve the purpose of reminding us that theater—like medicine—follows a script and is subject to question and negotiation.)
You Are Not Paris is a sleeper of a show—not in the box office, but in your head. When I was watching the show I was often entertained, often engaged, sometimes bored, and sometimes a little annoyed…but it’s stuck with me, and the more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the achievement of the show’s creators and performers. This is very ambitious theater that creates a haunting effect unlike anything else you’re apt to see at the Fringe, and these performers have the kind of stage presence and creative energy that makes one think this won’t be the last we’ll see of any of them.
Photo courtesy Minnesota Fringe Festival