Reviewed by George Basler
Watching Castle on the Hill, which opened this past weekend (April 27-29) at Binghamton University’s Watters Theater, is like watching a parade of ghosts. These ghosts aren’t figments of someone’s imagination. They’re flesh and blood people who lived, worked and, yes, even died at the Binghamton State Hospital.
They may not haunt your dreams, but, thanks to this compelling production, you won’t soon forget them.
The play, which runs through this weekend, is the work of Binghamton University theater professor Elizabeth Mozer, who became intrigued with the mental hospital’s history after taking a tour there in 2015 and being moved by the experience.
Her interest led to almost three years of researching psychiatric care, studying written accounts of patients and interviewing former nurses, relatives of patients and patients themselves.
The initial result was a one-woman show, The Asylum Project. Mozer then expanded the work into a full-length play that premiered last weekend.
Obviously, Castle on the Hill has historical resonance for people in the Binghamton community. The Gothic Revival building, which housed the mental hospital and was nicknamed the Castle, still stands on the city’s East Side. The play is more than a history lesson, though. Mozer has written a powerful drama, with real emotional impact, that forces audience members to consider the humanity of people too often marginalized and then discharged by the larger society.
A Press & Sun-Bulletin article reported that Mozer is the founder and artistic director of Theatre in the Flesh — described as a “movement theater” company — and that she has created original works that convey narratives through “physical text” rather than strictly dialogue.
Such is the case with Castle on the Hill. Mozer, who also directed the production, skillfully mixes dramatic monologues with choreographed movement. Actors move across the stage with an almost ghost-like quality. The shadowy lighting, designed by Yijing Liu, adds to the ominous atmosphere. So does the set by scenic director and assistant professor Laura Fine Hawkes.
The result is striking. One particularly effective touch is having patients move like shadows in their translucent rooms as other patients tell their stories.
Some of the play’s characters are based on real-life persons. One of the most prominent is Will (Gregory DeCola), based on Binghamton civil rights activist William Moore, who suffered a nervous breakdown as a graduate student. Moore later wrote about his illness and became an advocate for the mentally ill. He was murdered in 1963 while making a lone walk from Tennessee to Mississippi to support racial integration.
Another real-life character is Joseph (Natividad Guillen). Born a woman, Joseph lived as a man for more than 60 years. This choice brought him ridicule and banishment to mental institutions (first to the Willard Asylum and then to the Binghamton facility for 33 years).
Other characters are based on personal interviews done by Mozer.
Castle on the Hill, which spans the years from the 1920s to the 1970s, is not a polemic. Don’t expect One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or anything like it. There are no villains in this play. The main nurse, effectively played by Mayah Wells, is a sympathetic character who strives to treat her patients with respect.
This may reduce dramatic tension, but it’s in keeping with Mozer’s intention to simply tell stories about people whose lives were touched by the Castle, not to do an exposé. The play’s overall tone is one of regret and sorrow, not anger.
The tone is especially noticeable in the play’s main storyline that links Agnes (Margaret Leisenheimer), a Polish immigrant institutionalized in the 1920s after being traumatized by a house fire, with Lina (Christine Skorupa), a young woman who is undergoing her own psychological counseling in the 1970s.
At first, Lina’s story seems disconnected from the rest of the production but it ultimately merges with Agnes’ tale in a way that is emotionally jarring but provides the backbone of Castle on the Hill. Leisenheimer and Skorupa are both excellent in their roles.
Other BU students in the 12-person cast give capable performances as well. They successfully resist the temptation of overplaying the mental patients as wild-eyed caricatures. Instead, their performances are well-modulated and multi-dimensional, and arouse sympathy for the characters they are playing.
Castle on the Hill has some less effective moments. A scene between a former patient and the brother of another patient, while acted well, seems shoehorned into the play. Its tone is not in sync with the rest of the production. The segment on William Moore doesn’t quite capture his complexity. Admittedly capturing this very complex man could not have been an easy profile to complete.
Also, knowing some of the background on Binghamton State Hospital would probably help in appreciating the play.
Overall, though, Castle on the Hill is a first-rate production that I would strongly recommend. In the playbill, Mozer writes that the play is dedicated to those suffering from mental illness and to those of us who love and care for them. The play, without question, honors both groups.
IF YOU GO: Castle on the Hill will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday (May 4) and 2 p.m. Sunday (May 6) in the Watters Theater located in the Anderson Center at Binghamton University. Tickets are $18 ($16 alumni/faculty/senior/staff, $10 student). Tickets can be purchased at the Anderson Center box office, online or by phone (607) 777-ARTS.
BU's 'Castle' shines a compelling light
Reviewed by George Basler