By Stephanie Butzer
When Alpha Psi Omega, Elon University’s theatre honor society, began taking suggestions for the annual One Act Festival, senior Sean Liang, the society’s president, submitted Lanie Robertson’s play, “The Insanity of Mary Girard.” The play focuses on a woman’s experiences after her husband commits her to an insane asylum for becoming impregnated with another man’s child. Perhaps the scariest part, Liang said, is that the play is based on a true story from 1790 Pennsylvania.
“I’m a huge horror movie fan so it’s really fun for me to take something that I love and put that style on a show, especially in theater,” said senior Sean Liang.
Liang said he submitted the play because it’s a form of theater Elon does not often perform. Elon seemed to be the perfect place to show it because in educational theater, students and faculty like to see as many forms of art, technique and style as they can, he said.
“I really loved the idea of – we don’t see it very much – horror in theater,” Liang said. “It’s hard to do.”
After careful consideration, Liang and the other leaders in APO decided to take on the show.
Fred Rubeck, chair of the Department of Performing Arts, said he is proud of Liang for taking on leadership roles. They worked together on the improv show, Instant Laughter, in the fall. But Rubeck first noticed Liang’s talents before Liang even came to Elon. They were first introduced when Liang was a senior in high school and came to Elon to audition for the BFA Acting program.
“There was something special about Sean we noticed from the beginning — a creative and unique quality that would serve him well as a performer,” Rubeck said. “It also served him well as a person. He’s really grown to be an emotional center to the whole group in the department — a support system and a really good friend.”
Creating the nightmare
“The Insanity of Mary Girard” is written to seem like a bad dream. The set consists of a solitary tranquilizing chair. Liang will use a relatively unknown form of Japanese art called butoh, where some actors and actresses wear completely white makeup and possess grotesque facial expressions and physical features. The play is anything but traditional, Liang said.
He first stumbled across the Japanese art of butoh in his Theatre History class.
“It’s everything that I’m interested in,” Liang said. “The reason I chose butoh is because it works so well with the nightmare aspect of the play. The play is Mary Girard and then the five Furies that are the inmates.”
The Furies, which translate to the goddesses of vengeance in Greek mythology, are meant to disturb the audience.
“There’s nothing in this play that actually grounds us in reality,” Liang said. “It moves like a dream. To use butoh for [The Furies] to move through the space really takes us to a different realm of reality.”
The Furies’ white makeup convinces viewers they are not looking at normal people or inmates. The Furies are scripted to move almost in a dance form. Liang said “The Insanity of Mary Girard” could work almost as a musical number.
“It has a lot to do with sound and movement,” he said. “The Furies are the body of the show.”
Liang said he hopes to use butoh as a simplistic explanation of a complicated art form. He loves that the point of butoh is to disturb viewers.
“I love watching an audience’s reaction to horror,” he said. “Some people go because it’s cheap and cheap scares and fun, but it’s also the stuff that – and this is one of the reasons why I love ‘The Insanity of Mary Girard’ —goes a little bit deeper.”
Playing the insane
Senior Nonye Obichere plays Mary Girard. She said the art of butoh adds to the Furies’ character because the audience cannot tell if they exist in reality or in Mary’s mind.
In the play, Girard is supposed to be terrified. Meanwhile, during rehearsal, Obichere is scared out of her mind, which makes the acting that much more real. Unlike Liang, she does not enjoy horror films.
Even though Obichere is excited for the play, she said she is also nervous about the part.
“I’ve never really played a character like Mary,” she said. “I’m usually a showgirl or someone in the back dancing so I wanted the opportunity to play something that I could really work on and use everything that I’ve learned here.”
Obichere has known Liang since their freshman year.
“He’s really the perfect person to direct the show because of his love of horror movies and how much he knows about everything scary,” Obichere said. “He’s just so good at it and so talented.”
Liang said the play is not only about fear. Gender is highlighted in the play as well. There is a lot of culture surrounding Mary’s pregnancy with another man’s child, especially with the time period. He said a viewer can start to see the gender issues that are relevant to today’s society.
“We start to see her break the expectations of what a woman is supposed to be and rebel against her husband,” Liang said.
As a professor, Rubeck said he sees a lot of students grow and develop their talents on and off stage. He has watched Liang learn to parlay his unique skills and abilities into something Rubeck believes will serve him well, such as his incorporation of butoh in “The Insanity of Mary Girard.”
“It’s been a pleasure to watch that grow,” Rubeck said. “Part of that is that personal connection he develops with people around him. He’s like a light that shines and people are drawn to him.”
Preparing for show time
Auditions for “The Insanity of Mary Girard” were held Jan. 4. Obichere recalls her experience with a shiver.
“Sean put me in a chair and blindfolded me and had everyone else who was auditioning to be the Furies,” she said. “At first I was like, ‘This might be kind of scary, but I know everyone in this room. It’s not a big deal.’ And then they started getting closer and touching me and one person was praying. Crazy things were happening.”
After Fake Break, the cast and crew will have two and a half weeks until opening night Feb. 21. Liang said this would give the performers time to learn the script and establish the movements in their muscles. Then they will add costumes and props and eventually light and sound.
Liang is expecting mixed reactions from students, faculty and community members. He said some will feel repulsed, others will be disturbed and others will love it the originality.
“I have to take into account that a lot of other people don’t necessarily have the same interest as me, so as a group, we’re trying to reach out and not just disturb an audience,” Liang said. “I told the actors, ‘That’s not your job. That’s not what we’re here for. We’re trying to explore these characters.’”
Obichere said she has told her friends if they enjoy the television series “American Horror Story,” they will love the show.
Aside from the humorous full-length APO show, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” “The Insanity of Mary Girard” will be Liang’s final show at Elon.
He hopes to go out with a gasp and a scream.