By Jan Derbyshire. Directed by Roy Surette. A Touchstone Theatre Production. At the Vancity Culture Lab on Friday, November 1. Continues until November 16
At the start of Certified, Jan Derbyshire gives definitions of the word crisis: in Chinese, it comprises characters meaning “danger” and “opportunity”, and in English, it originates from the Greek word krisis, signifying a turning point. For a solo show that explores an area as sensitive as mental health, it is an apt introduction, given the risk Derbyshire takes in unfolding a medical history that reveals acutely vulnerable parts of herself. Through heartfelt admissions, she tackles this chronicle with grace and humour.
Structured as a mental-health review board hearing, which the audience is told lasts 50 minutes, the show is a comic breakdown of how Derbyshire became certified insane eight times, through a series of remembered and imagined conversations. In brisk re-enactments, she mimics doctors’ lines of questioning, trained on how details of her personal life can fit into a diagnosis (“Where was I born?”; “Why am I wearing boys’ clothes?”). In contrast, her vivid inner world is conveyed through spoken-word poetry, a salvo of thoughts about caffeine and hypertension, Prozac and Celexa.
Behind the caustic humour, which springs naturally from the adroit performer, dark trauma floods various episodes of her life, from an adolescent assault on the plains of Alberta to suicidal ideations by the Lions Gate Bridge, within walking distance from St. Paul’s. Pressed between these reminders are reflections on historical travesties, like Riverview Hospital’s Female Chronic Unit, and happier moments, like finding support from a significant other and through a commiserative online chatroom.
Despite the difficult subject matter, Derbyshire never commits to self-pity; instead, there’s a genuine lightness to the untangling of her story line, starting with a quirky entrance by way of a head-mounted red blinker in the dark, imitating an ambulance’s flashing signal.
Sound designer Dana Ayotte supports the act with a choice of drum-forward and pianocentric music, plus hits by Patsy Cline and Oasis.
Director and set designer Roy Surette arranges the space with literal and symbolic factors, from larger set pieces like a personal diary and eight manila folders, all suspended in the air, to a field of overhead rubber orbs on strings, akin to neural connections.
Recommending naturopathy as an alternative to cocktails of prescribed medication, Derbyshire says the worst thing pills took from her was her imagination. While choice of treatment encompasses a larger dialogue beyond the theatre, it seems that within it, whatever imagination Derbyshire was lacking before has returned in spades. Just like in the participatory game that ends the play (where audience members judge Derbyshire’s sanity), Certified also fully passes evaluation—a testament to a dynamic performance and delicate storytelling.