Degeneration X—Wrestling with Madness and Blindness


Whether by accident or by design, the title of this production, Degeneration X-–a multimedia play about a young man living with a rare visual condition accelerating into total blindness which in its early stages produces hallucinations, badly messing with his mind—mimics that of a 90’s professional wrestling stable in the World Wrestling Federation.

The WWF’s D-Generation X ‘s gimmick was that of a gang of rebels who acted and spoke as they pleased, no matter how provocative. Not a bad description for most of the characters in this play, all of whom appear to be under the influence throughout the play and all of whom (with the rare exception of the hero Xavier) shriek, pose, strut, hoot, display bravado, and generally act out. And all of whom are damaged from family trauma; and despite the cliché, strangely moving and convincing.

The hero, Xavier (Micah B. Chartrand), whose condition causes very real and intensely vivid migraines and hallucinations, and whose condition will almost surely blind him, nevertheless flirts with blindness by spending his aimless unemployed days drinking giant size Colt 45s. Xavier’s needy hanger-on sister (Leah Bachar) ingests magic mushrooms with chocolate on top, daily—thus living in a perpetual state of hectic, fevered hallucination—a near ringer for the WWF ring-leader’s manic daughter. Another woman, X’s new roommate (Lauren Hennessy), orchestrates high volume raves at the apartment and in clubs with her mascara’d buddy club kids, fueled by massive doses of drugs and alcohol— a fine fit for the WWF character Chyna. (We later learn she, like Xavier and his sister, may have been an abused and abandoned child who used acid to zone out from the pain). In short, virtually everyone is in an altered state or, in one case, is a figure of the altered state itself.

We first meet the hero Xavier walking the Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, drumming his fingers through the wire mesh side screens producing a high thrumming sound. Seemingly almost autistic, he makes his own music. An artist, he is also continually producing line drawings which come alive, moving and thrashing and swimming amoeba-like across his palette. These images produced on screens around the theatre, swim into the watchers’ minds rather effectively—at times it seems as though they are moving across the screens when clearly they are not.

Xavier, recently fired, depressed, and clearly preferring his own company to that of anyone else except his hallucinatory girlfriend (Meredith Edwards) who, clothed in gold with hair that “looks like a mane,” may or may not be his vision of a lioness. And may or may not be real. She is gentle, sweet, caring, physically close to the distant Xavier. (And of course, we learn finally that she is only a projection of his disturbed mental and physical state.Whom he must drive away, so as to heal).

The girlfriend mimics a lioness. Xavier loves lions, believing that they provide model families/prides in which the lioness cares closely for her cubs, unlike his own mother, an alcoholic who tended to abandon him and his sister. Whenever a family discussion is underway in this apartment, a pride of lions, cubs and mother lovingly playing, is exhibited on the three screens. Xavier however is not able to follow their nurturing example—he is put in a position of having to fight off his very needy and disturbed sister, a strident, wacked, drama queen who wants desperately to move in with him and as a bone, attempts to give Xavier constant running news of his alcoholic mother. His sister wants to bond, no matter how tentatively, with him since it is clear she really has nowhere else to go.

Xavier’s new roommate, too, is apparently desperate, needing someplace to go. She announces that she must move in ASAP and chucks large wads of bills at him to secure her place. She initially appears belligerent, but later emerges as sweet, with some empathy for X’s condition. Nevertheless she has—one might say—no sense of boundaries. To get him to agree to have a party at their apartment, she playfully, wildly, grinning widely waves a gun at him. Terrified, he agrees. But he grabs the gun back and puts it to his own head. He does not follow through. We never are sure whether it is loaded.

So the dangerous, high pitched, madly veering domestic scenario is not an optimal living situation for someone who is afraid he is going mad—or macularly degenerating—or both.

Xavier’s own need for nurturing must be briefly satisfied by his projection lion girlfriend but fortunately, also by his psychiatrist (Gordon Gray, who does not in the least resemble WWF ringleader Vince McMahon let me just admit it. Comparisons can be drawn too far). The shrink is a fat old man in worn scrubs eating potato chips.Not imposing, not even very clinical. Yet it is he who diagnoses, treats Xavier, comforts him, encourages him, and listens to him kindly and endlessly without judgment as no one else in his life seems to be able to do. The psychiatrist, the fulcrum of his own world, draws Xavier into it. And finally, he finds a place for Xavier as an experimental subject.

The climactic scene is in Coney Island, a place where experiencing hallucination is the whole point. As a trip for a rapidly degenerating macular condition, it is a dangerous choice. Xavier and his is she live? Is she Memorex? Girlfriend with the mane of golden hair, play and cavort and at first appear to be happy and carefree. But Xavier’s deteriorating sight makes the lights, gargoyles, and cartoonish charades even more bleary and hallucinogenic than they originally were. The scenario quickly deteriorates into illness on the rides, rocks chucked at the hapless Xavier, and finally a bad cruel beating by some hulking cruising men who leave him in a bloody heap.

It is probably unfair of me to quibble with the happy ending. I fully expected Xavier to find a way to jump off the Bridge, or step in front of a bus, or simply to OPD on the mass of drugs that flood his apartment. Yet the play ends with Xavier, fully blind, using his cane like a master, smiling as he never smiled in the rest of the 2 ½ hour show, an experimental subject at Columbia Medical Center. Despite the fact that X is now blind, the area of his brain which should no longer show activity pertaining to sight, apparently persists in being active. The scientists are ecstatic and are studying him. Xavier seems to be near ecstatic himself. He is even able to comfort his sister and chat with his roommate. It is a pretty equivocal ending.

But I sat through the whole thing! And despite my disapproval of a rather contrived ending, I found myself laughing, crying, and glued to my seat throughout the lengthy  performance. Degeneration and all. And was captivated even though the seats were hard and the beer was warm. It was a bravura performance by all. The actors were genuinely compelling– and touching– and sometimes downright scary– and I applaud their work.  They deserve an audience and I hope they will get one before the run is over. The play won’t be around for much longer- go see it.

Photos by Jaka Vinsek, from top:
Micah B. Chartrand (Xavier) and Gordon Gray (Dr. Hendrix)
Micah B. Chartrand (Xavier) and Leah Bachar (Isis)
Meredith Edwards (Simone) and Micah B. Chartrand
Micah B. Chartrand (Xavier) and Meredith Edwards (Simone)
Micah B. Chartrand (Xavier) and Helene Macaulay (Psychologist)

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