Step into the ‘Funnyhouse’: check your sanity at the door

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Enter “Funnyhouse of a Negro,” and you enter a nightmarish world within the disturbed mind of Sarah, the daughter of an interracial marriage. Like many other works, “Funnyhouse” deals with racial tension in mid-20th century America: the identity issues, the question of colonialism, the strain on family relationships. What’s unique about “Funnyhouse” is that its power does not lie in its storytelling or its characters — instead, its visual and verbal poetry pulls us into the vortex of a disturbed psyche (while causing a few heart palpitations along the way).

Sarah, the play’s unreliable lens, is an articulate college student. Near the beginning of the play she describes her past: Her father was black and her mother white. The actress manages to balance self-awareness with strains of madness in this monologue. She comments on the cultural dislocation and stereotypes surrounding colonialism and black heritage, but with an added twist: Sarah herself obsesses over “whiteness” (“I write poetry and fill white page after white page … [I want] to eat my meals on white glass tables.”). This is our one glimpse of her mental cohesion before we dive into the recesses of her insanity. Sarah’s alternate persona, the Duchess of Hapsburg, and her idol-come-alive, Queen Victoria, provide further insights into the inner workings of her mind. They are a duo of white faces in hoop skirts who echo Sarah’s sentiments (“My mother looked like a white woman … And at least I am yellow, but [my father] is black, the blackest one of them all.”). Other characters, such as the ghost of Sarah’s father, parade in and out as figments of Sarah’s imagination.

The sound design of “Funnyhouse” ensures that the audience never catches its breath between jolts of terror. A steady, loud drone does not overpower the speech but keeps heartstrings pulled taut. Scenes end with offstage shatters whose starkness echoes the spliced thoughts of the insane. Identical speeches are repeated by the different characters of Sarah’s imagination, each rendition adding a new layer of meaning. The raving authority of the actors’ voices grows throughout the play, and the sound design’s drama elevates this power.

Eventually, we begin to experience the show as a collage of manic poetry and chilling images. The play’s beautiful and disturbing visuals latch onto the mind long after the curtains close. The audience’s first image to absorb is of the jagged silhouette of a woman behind a translucent curtain who begins thrashing and screaming. We see the lines of bodies that pin her to a bed, while a noose subtly hangs overhead. In another moment, Queen Victoria, resembling a gothic bride, sits before an arrangement of mirrors, her fractured reflections scattered across the back of the room evoking a nightmarish carnival fun house.

“Funnyhouse”’s nonlinear structure aims not to tell a story but to swallow the audience into Sarah’s self-loathing. It is a tight production, and the flurry of lights and bellows risk confusion. But the chaos is mostly controlled, and even if we momentarily feel lost, the impact of the visuals makes Sarah’s turmoil obvious.

The drama is period-specific, but while it speaks of the dangers of internalizing racial values, it also appeals to a more primal terror. The moments of intense hysteria speak of an obsession and self-hatred all can relate to. The most jarring moments occur when the actors look up and directly stare into the eyes of the audience — we are sucked into Sarah’s madness. We agree as she observes, “I find there are no places, only my funnyhouse.”

“Funnyhouse of a Negro” is showing at the Yale Cabaret this Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.

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