Jason Invisible is a cross between Sesame Street and an A.A. meeting with all the best parts of each playing across the sweet face of lead actor Mark Halpern, especially his slowly dawning looks of realization and pleasure that people care about him. Halpern plays Jason Invisible, who is “flying under the radar, incognito” because he does not want to think about his mom’s death or his father’s mental illness. But he’s not totally invisible because he has an anonymous advice column.
True to character, Halpern said the Q&A forum at the end of the play is his favorite part of the show. He and the cast performed for a couple of student audiences, “. . . and people were shouting and grabbing for the microphones. It was a successful forum,” he said.
Kirby Kelley, a middle-schooler, said he liked the forum because it broke the barrier between the actors and the audience. He was cribbing from the program, which explained how the “fourth wall” separates the stage characters from the attendees.
The first step in breaking the wall was delivered in a courtroom scene, when the off-stage voice-over of the judge seemed to come from somewhere just above the audience. The second step was when the house lights came up and the audience was asked to stand up if they agreed with something or stay seated if they did not. There are no wrong answers, the actors-turned-facilitators said. The questions break it down: which is more important, the friendship or the friend’s safety? Then they handed around the microphones so people could give their opinions. Some high school students I know are completely on the fence about this, which might be why we need thought-provoking theater like Jason Invisible commissioned by the International Organization on Arts and Disability, or VSA, which was started by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.
Jason has six friends, three imaginary and three from a school support group. The actors switch back and forth between imaginary and real to the accompaniment of a goofy, cartoon-inspired riff and the donning or doffing of hats and eyeglasses. You can see the wired intensity drop from Dreamgirl, played by Rana Kay, when she composes herself, and her long, curly blond hair, into Shelby, whose mom is dying.
Actor Chris Wilson is the imaginary Crazy Glue, who glued three fingers of his hand together and uses it as a combination of a duck and a ‘talk to the hand’ wiseacre. When he’s not imaginary, Wilson doubles as cool-kid Haze, whose character is somewhat transformed by hanging out with Jason. His body movements were really fun to watch.
Jason’s third friend is played by Michael V. Sazonov, who assumes a lecturing stance when he’s the imaginary S.G. (Smart Guy), but refreshingly turns to face Jason when he’s real, even giving him his own bagged lunch. His performance was very earnest.
Any and all body humor got a laugh from the audience, and things really revved up when the actors grabbed the crazy dad and drove off in an imaginary car, swerving left, swerving right, and getting thrown forward and back repeatedly. The show choreographer is Paige Hernandez.
Michael John Casey plays a complex character as the dad. He has a disturbing habit of flapping his hand self-hypnotically, but his character can also play a violin, a combination that captures mental illness in a nutshell. The violin solo was like a gem of normalcy in a swirl of atmospheric incidental music by Composer Ryan Mackenzie Lewis, Music Director for Eastern Michigan University’s theater department.
The set included an irregularly shaped, rolling platform by Scenic Designer Misha Kachman that rotated to change from apartment to school to hospital. It was painted with some Greek motifs that matched a mythological theme based on the sun god Apollo and the three furies, who drive their victims mad. The dad thinks Jason is Apollo and wants to protect him from the furies. The most touching scene in the play is when his dad looks at him and says ”Every time I look at you I feel the pain of us.”
The first thing you may notice when you arrive in the theater is the loud zoom of cars that rush by one by one just behind the high, metal-meshed windows of the set. The beep of hospital machines by Sound Designer Christopher Baine was also perfectly annoying.
Then you may notice the big streetlamp that Properties Artisan Dreama J. Greaves had attached to a telephone pole. Perfect for its city setting, the streetlamp later resembles an operating room light when the dad is in the hospital. That scene itself was flooded in daylight compared with others—the muddy light for the imaginary friends, the brighter light of the school—by Lighting Designer Kyle Grant.
Costume Designer LeVonne Lindsay chose colorful skinny jeans, cool T-shirts and geeky cardigans for the guys and a fluffy skirt and leggings for Crazygirl/Shelby. Their sneakers were an array of hip styles, some with bright laces, and were suited for each character, including Dad, who wore sturdy brown leather shoes.
The play was directed by Rosemary Newcott, last seen at the Kennedy Center Family Theater for Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical, which went on to a national tour. “Jason Invisible” was adapted by playwright and young adult fiction author Laurie Brooks, who has worked extensively in Ireland, from the book Crazy by Han Nolan, winner of the 1997 National Book Award for her novel Dancing on the Edge.
Watching “Jason Invisible” for the first time at its world premiere on Saturday, March 24, Nolan said it was fun to see how other creative minds layered their ideas onto hers. “When I write, it is a conversation with the readers,” who are mostly teenagers. “Now someone else has taken it forward and opened it to adults and younger children.”
Jason claimed to be a loner, but when people start quoting his anonymous advice column, he realizes that he is helping others and their appreciation helps him. The real loners are the actors when they depart with their backpacks to their suppers and their Saturday nights, while the audience files out with friends and family to a world in which it might be easier to understand people and easier to take action if they really need help. Or they may leave with some relief that they’re not the only ones with problems, that even trying to cope is admirable, and that that people do care. In some cases caring is their job.
Speaking of which, Susan Lynskey is a totally convincing as schoolmarm Mrs. Silky and, doubling as the caring school counselor Dr. Gomez, is visibly annoyed when the bell cuts short her support group. And Mark Hairston represents the foster care system with calm resignation as Sam. But be nice to Sam and Dr. Gomez because they are the ones that pass around the microphone.
Running Time: Approximately One hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission.
Jason Invisible plays through April 7, 2013 at The Kennedy Center’s Family Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online, or call the box office at (202) 467-4600/(800) 444-1324.