‘Jason Invisible’ at the Kennedy Center explores mental illness


Chris Wilson, left, as Haze/Crazy Glue and Mark Halpern as Jason in “Jason Invisible” at the Kennedy Center. (Regis Vogt/The Kennedy Center)
March 19, 2013

When the Kennedy Center selected “Jason Invisible” to produce for young audiences, “we weren’t looking for a play specifically about mental illness,” said Betty Siegel, director of VSA and accessibility at the Kennedy Center. “We’re trying to look at the experience of disability. When we make disability a part of what’s going on onstage, we normalize it.”

“There’s been a lot of coverage of mental illness in a negative way in the news,” said Siegel, especially in the coverage of mass shootings. “The point is that mental illness is really much more common and pervasive and much less scary than that. It’s something people can live with.”

“Jason Invisible,” a world premiere co-commission by the Kennedy Center and VSA — the international organization on arts and disability — was adapted by Laurie Brooks from “Crazy,” a novel by Han Nolan. Jason’s father has a mental illness; Jason relies on the aid of imaginary friends and wishes he could go through life unseen until he starts writing an advice column for the school newspaper, helping other troubled teens and accidentally increasing his own visibility in the process.

“There aren’t that many plays on this particular [mental] illness,” Siegel said. “Or they use the illness as a trigger to move the story forward. This is about a boy dealing with a family crisis.”

Rosemary Newcott, the show’s director, frequently directs for middle school students (she previously helmed “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical” at the Kennedy Center). “One thing that struck me right away is that this is going to be different,” she said. “I’d never dealt with mental illness before, as a director. [But this show] doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable. . . . I don’t want people to be afraid to see it because it’s about mental illness.”

A sensory-friendly performance of “Jason Invisible” will be held April 6, with special considerations made — the theater lights stay on low; patrons are allowed to walk around and talk during the show — to create an environment that’s accessible for families with children on the autism spectrum.

“I’d realized I’d been negligent” Seigel said, when the Kennedy Center implemented the sensory-friendly performances last year. “We’re starting to realize we have not been as inclusive as we thought we were.”

The first sensory-friendly performance was held in April, Siegel said, and “it sold out in 48 hours.”

March 23-April 7, 2700 F Street NW, www.kennedy-center.org, 202-467-4600.

ATMTC takes on Bob Marley’s music

In other “shows for the young ’uns” reports, Adventure Theatre MTC’s producing artistic director, Michael Bobbitt, has adapted “Three Little Birds,” a picture book based on a Bob Marley song and written by Cedella Marley and Gerald Hausman, into a world premiere musical for children.

“The book really uses Bob Marley’s lyrics from the songs, which already sort of have a narrative to it,” Bobbitt said. “It just seemed to lend itself to a modern fairy tale. . . . And then as I combed through Bob’s canon of work, there were a bunch of songs that popped out as strong possibilities for dramatic interpretation, and that put me on to researching everything I could find out about Jamaica.”

Ziggy, the 11-year-old protagonist, named for Bob Marley’s oldest son, “likes to stay inside and watch TV because he’s afraid of very many things in the world,” Bobbitt said. The thrust of the play is “to enjoy life and enjoy the outdoors, which is quintessentially Jamaican.”

Figuring out how to make the sometimes-PG-13 soundtrack that is Bob Marley’s music wasn’t too difficult, Bobbitt said, because “most of the stories [in children’s theater] are from a child’s point of view, and they’re kid-sized problems. So focusing on the story first was a great way to eliminate some of the great stuff that may not have fit.”

And he did find a way to slip in “I Shot the Sheriff” without having to deal with the violence in the lyrics: The orchestra plays it, sans vocal accompaniment, “after the bad guy gets foiled.”

Through April 14, 7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, Md., www.adventuretheatre-mtc.org, 301-634-2270.

Shakespeare Theatre Co. announces additions to 2013-14 season

Semi-breaking news from the Shakespeare Theatre Company! It was breaking when we posted it on the Style blog last week. Now it’s broken, like the glass at a Jewish wedding. For the print-only readers among you, here’s the update:

The STC has announced a sixth main-stage production to round out its 2013-14 season. Stephen Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” will run from Nov. 21 to Jan. 5. The show will be associate director Alan Paul’s main-stage directing debut at the STC. “A Funny Thing” is one of those “boy likes girl, girl is engaged to somebody else, boy enlists aid of his Roman slave who is secretly attempting to be freed when the whole love story is over” kind of tales. Catchy tunes, too! That Sondheim guy. He knows his stuff.

The STC also announced two presentations: South Africa’s “Mies Julie” (Nov. 9–24) and Baryshnikov Productions’ “Man in a Case” (December, exact dates TBD), both as part of the STC Presents Series.

“Mies Julie” takes place almost 20 years after apartheid in South Africa. “Man in a Case,” adapted from a Chekhov story, is a mash-up of dance, film, music and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who people born before 1980 know as one of the greatest ballet dancers of his generation, and possibly ever, and people born after 1980 know as the guy Carrie didn’t marry on “Sex and the City.” He seems to have recovered nicely after getting jilted in Paris!

For information, call 202-547-1122 or check out the STC’s Web site.

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