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Feeling ‘The Effect’

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Engrossing and elegiac, the Claire Trevor School of the Arts’ “The Effect” opened on April 23, and ran for two weekends at the Robert Cohen Theater before stirring audiences one final time with its closing performance on May 1. 

Written by British playwright Lucy Prebble and directed by UCI M.F.A Directing candidate Chloe King, this cynical romantic comedy centers on a clinical trial for an up-and-coming antidepressant drug produced by the fictional “Rauschen Pharmaceuticals.” 

At the heart of the play, among psychiatrists, are two of the trial’s participants: Tristan (Gio Munguia) and Connie (Fiona Palazzi). Disconnected from the outside world within the confines of the medical trial, the pair’s relationship quickly metamorphoses from strangers into something more, with their combined emotional instability and a yearning for connection quickly merging into romance.

It is through this relationship that a guiding question of “The Effect” materializes: if antidepressant medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are intended to increase levels of serotonin — a chemical byproduct of falling in love — can Connie and Tristan’s feelings ever be genuine? Or are they mere side effects of the treatment? 

In the process of exploring this troubling predicament, the play powerfully propelled audiences into the dark realities and emotional turmoil surrounding mental health care, questioning how we define mental illness and its effect on our perceptions, relationships and ourselves. 

A large portion of what enabled “The Effect” to become so impactful is its immersion. Before the play began, audience members were transported beyond the theater and into Rauschen Pharmaceuticals through intentional costuming, lighting, audio and directing. 

Actors, who were dressed as doctors, guarded large window-paned doors on either side of the slightly raised stage, taking tickets and temperatures of awaiting watchers by welcoming them as participants in the clinical trial. When all lights except a glowing ring at center stage faded, intense and robotic instrumental music shook the room, and large screens illuminated the current date and drug dose number. Performers chaotically cascaded from their place among the audience to swallow their assigned drug, change into their scrubs and slip on shoes, and take their place within the study.

From there, the play continued with impressive attention to the audience’s proximity, building a realistic and interesting atmosphere that avoided appearing overly staged. 

The theater itself also contributed to the play’s immersion, and therefore its effectiveness. Hosting “The Effect” at the Robert Cohen Theater — a black box theater without a stagnant seating layout — enabled a “theater in the round” formation with audience seating circling the stage.

At any given point in “The Effect,” all actors on stage could be examined from all points of view within the audience. Brilliantly, this stage organization and simple, yet intentional set, created an intimate and artistic atmosphere where performers connected and inspired watchers in a deeply real and captivating way. The slightest microexpression, movement or mumble felt present and thoroughly seen, while large-scale actions of horror, beauty and heartbreak radiated intensely throughout the space. 

The intimacy of this configuration required and maintained complete attention from the play’s audience. For better or worse — even when uncomfortable emotions or disturbing imagery made one want to escape the present scene — audiences were forced to take in all of the play’s good, bad and ugly.  

When the character of Dr. Toby Sealy (Robert Zelaya) presented his TED Talk, the play’s audience became his audience. While Connie and Tristan admitted their romantic interest in one another and solidified their sexual attraction, audiences watched the uninhibited, tender waltz-like moment as flies on the wall. As Tristan seized from an overdose of the antidepressant drug, audience members, doctors, patients and Connie alike all observed his pain in mutual horror. Breathtakingly or grotesquely, “The Effect” transcended beyond theater’s natural and expected divisions. 

Fascinatingly, “The Effect” blurred the lines between participant and observer in more ways than audience immersion; the perspectives of physicians and patients were equally examined on the stage, emphasizing depression’s indifference. As the production acknowledged, anyone can struggle with their mental health — patients and medical professionals alike.  

Dr. Lorna James (Feyintoluwa Ekisola) exemplified this indeterminacy of character identity within the play. Although she is an adept psychiatrist dedicated to caring for those in the clinical trial and recording accurate results about the efficacy of the antidepressant, she openly struggled with her own mental health. Filled with guilt surrounding the trial’s failures and Tristan’s complication, she took a permanent place sleeping on one of the stage’s benches throughout the majority of Act 2. As scenes started and ended around her, she remained covered and lifeless in a depressed bundle of blankets and sadness, unaffected by the passage of time. By the play’s end, Dr. James required the comfort and treatment she once provided, and she eventually turned to antidepressant medication for help — not unlike the medication tested in the trial she once monitored.

For audiences, the circularity of her character and haunting imagery left a devastatingly sad impact attributed to Prebble’s writing, King’s directing and Ekisola’s compelling interpretation of the role. 

The four primary actors — Munguia, Palazzi, Ekisola and Zeyala — all brought emotional depth, complexity and skill to their portrayals. Munguia’s performance as Tristan was altogether wonderful — full of dazzlingly comedic delivery and earnestness, he was heartbreaking and charming all at once. Likewise, Palazzi was dynamic, measured and enjoyable as Connie, and her chemistry with Munguia was delightful. Ekisola’s portrayal of Dr. James also was powerful and honest, radiating a memorable profoundness and relatability, especially throughout Act 2 during her character’s mental health decline. Alternatively, Zelaya offered a terrific, engaging and believable performance as Dr. Sealy. The movement chorus, composed of Nathan Bravo, Jamie Collazo, Jeyna Lynn Gonzales, also pleasantly added motion and presence to the play. 

Creative and captivating, the play’s costuming foreshadowed and paralleled the emotions and themes of shifting identity, self-examination and honesty. This was especially present in Tristan and Connie’s color swapping scrubs — from pink to blue and vice versa — as the trial ensured, and the nude leotards covered in neon handprints worn as the pair consummated their relationship. Additionally, the lighting, music and on-stage direction within that scene were executed through gloriously raw movement, articulating organic apprehension, honesty and bliss through onstage connection. 

In its totality, “The Effect” was an entertaining and important theatrical experience. In the process of contemplating the effect of antidepressants on a lovestruck mind, it highlighted the inner workings and effectiveness of the mental health industry. While the variety of emotions depicted can be overwhelming at times, its colliding storylines connected to produce a moving and necessary examination of a society still feeling the results of pandemic isolation. 

As King articulated in the director’s notes, “We are at a point where we not only need but also want to get better and to be open and honest about our experiences. ‘The Effect’… asks the question: what is a healthy mind, how do we define normal and how can the healthcare industry become better in serving those who need it most.”

Clairesse Schweig is an Entertainment Staff Writer. They can be reached at cschweig@uci.edu.