Reassembled, Slightly Askew takes you inside the head of a brain-trauma patient

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      By Shannon Yee. Directed by Anna Newell. A presentation of the Cultch and the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. At the Vancity Culture Lab on Wednesday, January 17. Continues until February 4  

      Reassembled, Slightly Askew takes a radically immersive approach to extending compassion.

      Belfast-based playwright Shannon Yee was just 30 when she experienced a brain injury, specifically a subdural empyema (a layer of pus between the brain and the skull) brought on by a sinus infection. The pressure on Yee’s brain nearly killed her; she was saved by a surgical procedure that involved the removal of a flap of her skull, which was sewn into her abdominal wall while the brain infection was treated by antibiotics. Yee ended up spending more than two months in hospital before heading home to begin the long process of recovery.

      In Reassembled, Yee invites audience members to share her experience, using techniques drawn from radio drama, aural sculpture, and performance art. The show accommodates just eight people at a time, who are greeted by an orderly, ushered into the performance space, and asked to lie on hospital beds and don eye masks and headphones. Through soundscape and voice-over, we experience Yee’s descent into illness, her partner’s agonizing wait for medical help, and the many physical and emotional traumas of Yee's long hospitalization.

      Postsurgery, for example, Yee imagines she’s in Mexico, where she’d been about to go on holiday before her illness; we hear voices around her speaking Spanish. Later, she obsessively removes staples from her head, and we hear her partner and a nurse expressing their dismay. Following her release from hospital, a simple attempt to go out and buy toothpaste turns into a nightmare as the sound of a wailing baby mushrooms into an unbearable cacophony. Composer Paul Stapleton weaves the sounds of traffic, hospital equipment, and the voices of loved ones into a densely layered portrait of Yee’s confusion. As audience members, we are always in her head.

      And the road to recovery is long; there’s a weariness in Yee’s voice as she answers yes to item after item on a questionnaire about the impact of her injury. But the immersive portion of the show ends on a note of hope, after which audience members can step outside the experience by watching a documentary film about the piece’s creation.

      According to an information video in the theatre’s lobby, a brain injury occurs every three minutes in British Columbia. That’s a lot of people who have found their minds “slightly askew”. The opportunity to feel what one person has gone through, to gain insight into an all-too-common trauma, is an enormous public service.