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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 74.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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The frank, funny Lost Track by Encore Studio
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A less-is-more approach could make the show resonate even more.
Credit:Encore Studio for the Performing Arts

At a time when productions and seasons are getting cancelled, I'm glad that Encore Studio for the Performing Arts, Wisconsin's only theater company for individuals with disabilities, is presenting Lost Track at the Bartell Theater.

The original work by Wendy Prosise and KelsyAnne Schoenhaar examines a young woman's struggle with bipolar disorder. The frank and sometimes funny look at mental illness, which incorporates film sequences, left me thinking that it might ultimately be better as a one-woman show -- almost a Spalding Gray performance piece.

That's because the most affecting and authentic moments came when lead character Danny, played with a freshly scrubbed matter-of-factness by Leah Steele, spoke candidly about her bipolar episodes. One such moment came when she commented on film images of a trip to Burning Man, which spurred an episode. Sometimes she let the images speak for themselves, like one of Danny wearing a motorcycle helmet and spilling spices on the kitchen floor, or another of a frightening suicide attempt.

My one-woman show concept should not be taken as a slam of the cast of Encore actors -- there are certainly good performances: as a patient, charming Steve Woodson gives a brief history of mental illness and psycho-pharmaceuticals, and Sarah Luedtke has an believable turn as a new mom in group therapy. I just imagine that the re-working of the play in a spare format would be particularly thought-provoking and informative for high school and college audiences. As Danny says in the opening scene, they warn you about sex and drugs in school, but not mental illness.

I have a friend who struggled with mental illness for over a decade, and her story of misdiagnoses (schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder), treatments (lithium and electroshock) and lengthy hospital stays made me appreciate that Lost Track does indeed ring true. It's just a bit cluttered -- the vocal performances between scenes were a little indulgent and distracting, and the recorded music punctuating scenes was too overbearing. At one point the music obscured a compelling monologue in a pivotal scene.

The subject matter is powerful enough, and a less-is-more approach could make the show resonate even more. The production, which was directed by Schoenhaar and Luedtke, made me realize how cavalier it is for me to toss around words like "crazy" and "insane" in conversations without thinking about their weight and implications.

People who have been affected by mental illness, one way or another, will appreciate Encore's sensitive exploration.

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