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Horror, isolation — and delusion? 'The Yellow Wallpaper' explores familiar themes
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MUSIC THEATRE OF MADISON | “THE YELLOW WALLPAPER”

Horror, isolation — and delusion? 'The Yellow Wallpaper' explores familiar themes

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“The Yellow Wallpaper” — the classic short story written by American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman and published in 1892 — has been adapted for stage and audio plays, and even for an episode of television’s “The Twilight Zone.”

Now it’s inspired a Madison original: a one-woman musical produced by Music Theatre of Madison.

The timing for a production of “The Yellow Wallpaper” seemed apt, said Meghan Randolph, executive director of MTM and the sole vocalist in the hourlong musical adaptation, written by Madison composers Evan Lange and Erin McConnell.

Gilman’s story is about the toll of isolation; mental health and the misunderstandings surrounding it; helplessness in the face of crises one doesn’t understand. It’s also a horror story grappling with the unknown — all-too-familiar themes as the world continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For our production, we are leaning into the horror,” said Janine Gardner, who is directing “The Yellow Wallpaper” along with her daughter, Trinity Gardner. Movement is by Marin Johnson.

The intimacy of a one-woman telling on stage is designed to give “a sense of dread and thrill” as the main character, hungering to rejoin the world, loses her tenuous grip on reality, Janine Gardner said.

In Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” the narrator is a woman separated from her new baby and confined to “rest” as a cure for her “temporary nervous depression.” Set apart from the world in an upper-story former nursery with barred windows and wallpaper that first disgusts her, then begins to haunt her and appears to take on a pulsing life of its own, the main character secretly writes in her journal to describe a descent into madness.

“I gravitated toward the challenge,” said Randolph, as she read Gilman’s 40-page novella and first began envisioning it as a musical work.

“When you read the book, it’s not 100% clear what happened to this person. Is it a horror story? Is it feminist literature? Is it a condemnation of the mental health industry?” Randolph said. “It’s thought-provoking (and) the language is just so powerful in the book. That’s what felt like music to me — the language — with staccatos and lyrical passages and things building up and getting more intense.

“I also wanted to explore the idea of a true horror musical,” she said. “I wanted to explore horror in a different way.”

The ambiguous nature of Gilman’s story means that people who read it “can project themselves into the story,” McConnell said. In writing the music for MTM’s production, “We really wanted to preserve that ambiguity so audiences can connect with it in that way. I’m a big horror fan, so to me, the unknown is the scariest.”

Writing for Randolph’s voice intrigued Madison musicians McConnell and Lange “because not only does she have an amazing instrument, but because Meghan had the idea to keep it a one-woman show,” McConnell said. “I think part of the horror is the character’s isolation.”

Live performances next weekend

This is the first one-person show for Randolph, a performer for 30 years who has appeared locally with Madison Opera, Children’s Theater of Madison, Four Season Theatre and Forward Theater, and also toured with “Cats.”

MTM originally planned to only stream its performance of “The Yellow Wallpaper” online, but as area restrictions regarding COVID-19 began to ease, the theater company booked the Play Circle Theater at Memorial Union for live shows Aug. 13-15. Opening night now will be both live and livestreamed. “The Yellow Wallpaper” also will be recorded so that it can be rented from MTM’s website, mtmadison.com, at a later date.

With its complex psychological themes and status as a feminist work, performances of “The Yellow Wallpaper” will be followed by audience talkbacks with UW-Madison English professor and UW Odyssey Project director Emily Auerbach, and Brigitte Fielder, an associate professor at UW-Madison and expert in 19th century literature.

“I feel like everyone who reads this story connects with it differently,” added Lange, who calls MTM’s production of “The Yellow Wallpaper” a “musical operetta” that is “text-forward” in the vein of “Light in the Piazza” or a Stephen Sondheim work.

“We were really trying to extend Gilman’s work and provide some depth through music and character study, but not force in decisions that Gilman didn’t make in the text,” Lange said.

“We all know about isolation” because of recent stay-at-home orders from the COVID-19 pandemic, said co-director Janine Gardner. “When you’re all by yourself, in a room, how do you navigate that?

“The walls close in. (In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’) she becomes obsessed with the walls, because that’s all she sees. And when she looks out the window — is what she’s seeing real? Is it a figment of her own imagination?”

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