We spend a lot of time as a culture romanticizing quirky iconoclasts, people who see the world just a little bit differently than us, in films, novels and plays. We spend considerably less time exploring the perspectives of those who actually see the world differently than the average person. There’s a clear (if unfortunate) reason for this: empathy is hard, and it’s easier to see Amelie in ourselves than it is to plumb the depths of working mental illness.
Originally written as an opera by Michael Nyman and based on a case study by Dr. Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a play that follows a celebrated classical singer and college professor, Dr. P, who unknowingly suffers from an illness that contorts his perception of reality into crude shapes colored by memory. His brain is “like an identikit,” claims Dr. S, who personally visits the man’s home and explores his life to diagnose and assist his patient.
Produced by Quantum Theatre and directed by Karla Boos, this unique story of prosperity in a distorted reality is flavorful and humorous. This opera is a bittersweet celebration of a life of some detachment and confusion, granting its subject both gravitas and a necessary levity. Kevin Glavin as Dr. P is as stately, charming, and blissfully ignorant as Winston Churchill playing Mr. Bean. His sudden dalliances from reality feel real in a remarkable way, like the man couldn’t possibly understand what’s so strange about misinterpreting a painting of a field of wheat as a busy image of young people falling in love at a café. Doesn’t everyone get confused about these things?
Dr. P is supported by Dr. S (Ian McEuen) and Mrs. P (Katy Williams), his wife. Ian McEuen’s Dr. S is charmingly, infinitely curious in his inimitably patient diagnosis, which I imagine is a difficult feeling to convey primarily through long, booming vocals. Katy Williams’ relatable vulnerability to Dr. S is a highlight. Her nervous dismissals and urgent concern over her husband’s condition may well remind those of us who have seen or lost loved ones to disease of unhappier times. Yet the rarity of her situation could make one’s imagination run wild with possibility, most especially once the doctor decides on a prescription.
All performers have enormous range and easily fill the admittedly small stage with life. In fact, with so little space to explore, the performers space onstage was carefully considered, resulting in the actors being largely immobile in spite of their volume of presence, not unlike lions pacing in cages.
Additionally, there is a mathematical perfection to the vocals here that I appreciated, as it further deepened the themes at the heart of the narrative.
An opera so equally academic and whimsical demands a certain magical quality, and Quantum’s production has a pleasant degree of whimsy. Like many contemporary opera productions, the stage is flanked by a big screen which projects the lyrics of each song. The backing screen is also used as a fun and sometimes unconventional tool, simply overlaying a series of paintings by Dr. P which shift slowly from photo-realistic portraits of people to abstractions and colors one moment, and displaying real-time GoPro footage of Dr. P’s medical examination the next.
The opera, however, is not truly from Dr. P’s perspective, no matter the use of form as metaphor for his experience. It is from Dr. S’ perspective, who bookends the story with spoken word monologues introducing us to and easing us out of the beautiful, skewed world of Dr. P. This is a matter of no small note. In spite of the lighthearted tone, this is an opera about a doctor with deep empathy for his patient, a man who does his best to enter and redraw his patients’ experience. This point of view gives the opera its warmth, without which could easily lead to its descent into some kind of hellish, Wes Anderson-esque Forrest Gump.
That The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat takes the form of an opera is a thing of beauty. The common complaint of the new opera attendee usually centers on the way opera treats simple conversation as a hefty endeavor, each syllable requiring patience and excavation. Here, the plot is not an excuse to utilize the historied form, but rather an explicit endorsement of it as essential. Dr. P is a man who lives in patterns whose career is in music; these things neatly intertwine. I won’t spoil any sense of discovery one could easily achieve in the opera, but to tell this story without the honest abstraction of its music would detach it further from reality as opposed to grounding it.
Quantum Theatre’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is heartfelt and idiosyncratic, an easy recommendation for those who’d like to explore new perspectives of the world both literal and artistic.
For tickets and more information, check out Quantum’s website here.
Photos courtesy of Heather Mull.