Adam Strauss sits on an empty stage next to a table loaded with glasses of water. He speaks plaintively to us about his ongoing internal monologue about which MP3 player has the best bass. It is an eerily familiar feeling for anyone who has ever agonized over which dog bed is superior on Amazon—reading the reviews, the dimensions, considering the price point.
We’ve all done it or something like it, and the bigger the purchase the more we fret over which model is the best deal, the most tailored to our needs. Adam Strauss does it too, only he gets stuck there for longer, and stays there for a while, spiraling in to doubt and off-shooting in to new considerations that complicate decisions that are already complicated enough. This brooding demonstration of his own personal take on OCD, with the help of director Jonathan Libman, is at once normalizing and thus empathy-inspiring, but also a terrifying glimpse into the claustrophobic mindset a mental illness can lock a person in to. The minimal set, the uncanny audience eye contact, the scene changes and even his restless rotation around the stage and room add to this effect.
The Mushroom Cure, an acclaimed one-man show, opened in Chicago at Greenhouse Theater Center for a month long run. One-man shows run this risk of coming off as episodes of The Moth story hour, but in the case of Strauss’s autobiographical tale, he is able to embody the other characters in the play in a theatrical way, playing in turn himself, his ex-girlfriend June, his drug dealer Slo, his psychiatrist, an emergency responder and a fellow hallucinogenic enthusiast. The result sometimes creates a manic pace, but nevertheless an impressive one. It might be his experience as a stand-up comedian that lends him this apparent shape-shifting ease, or it may just be his OCD itself, which is the whole crux of the story, and which allows him to slip in and out of the workings of his own overwrought mind as it plays out his daily struggles.
Strauss recounts the heart-breaking tale of his attempt to cure his own often times debilitating OCD with hallucinogenics. After reading a promising clinical study on how magic mushrooms cured a high number of patients with OCD, he embarks on an epic journey to even get access to the illusive mushrooms during a Burning Man-induced national shortage. At times farcical and hilarious, his search takes him down some dark roads as he randomly samples every other hallucinogenic stand-in he can access, and brings his burgeoning love affair with June, the only presence that tends to give his brain pause, to a breaking point.
The implications of long term psilocybin use are not up for discussion in Strauss’ verbal recollection of events. Yet what stands to be gained hovers hopefully in the mix and seems to trump any negatives. But the side effects of the drugs are clearly demonstrated, as Strauss weaves seamlessly from the nirvana-esque high the drugs provide to the incapacitating paranoia a bad trip can induce.
This omission of reflection on the intensity of the drugs used might be due to the fact that OCD has such a grip on the author that he doesn’t experience any fear of repercussions from repeated use. But it may also be due to the curious fact that the tour itself, which Strauss announces at the end of the show, is sponsored by a company that researches the use of psychotropics for medical cures—a fact which I would have preferred to have known before the play. It might not have detracted from my appreciation of the authenticity Strauss conveys so well in the telling of his story, but it may have induced a sense of skepticism about what may have been omitted from the narrative.
What is explored so well is Strauss’ pervasive wrestling match with his own mental illness, an illness whose very nature allows him the systematic single-mindedness to search for some strategy, technique or miracle to cure it. Vacillating between hilarity, somberness and frantic moments, the audience can go on this ride with Strauss, finding in his mania for the “right” decision on which MP3 player to buy, or which side of the street is better to walk down, something familiar. After all, obsessing over things is a human specialty, and although OCD is taking it to unimaginable level for most, just by understanding his thought processes during OCD overload moments, we can glimpse in it both the dark maul of our own need for self-destruction, and our own hope for the healing power of humanity. This is just the balance Strauss himself tinkers with, if not a cure, a means to cope with his minds’own self-sabotaging predilections.
The Mushroom Cure (running time 90 minutes) will be at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, until June 9. Buy tickets for $29-$35.
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