- My Father’s Bookshelf
Billed as a “tragicomic exploration of Alzheimer’s disease and our collective response to dementia,” My Father’s Bookshelf marked an important development for the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio programming and for Live Action Set, a movement-based theatre company founded in 2003 by a quartet of directors/choreographers/performers—Noah Bremer, Galen Treuer, Megan Odell, and Vanessa Voskuil—dedicated to ensemble-driven performances. For My Father’s Bookshelf, Live Action Set collaborated with members of the Alzheimer’s Associations of Minnesota and North Dakota, the Wayne Caron Family Caregiving Center at the University of Minnesota, and the university’s N. Bud Grossman Center for Memory Research and Care to create an original work about a disease that, according to recent data, afflicts as many as 5.3 million Americans and is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States. Under Bremer and Treuer’s direction, an ensemble of five actors raised social and medical awareness by approaching an otherwise serious topic with levity and humor. The actors presented the show in the Dowling Studio, an intimate black-box performance space situated on the ninth floor of the Guthrie Theater’s magnificent new building. Live Action Set’s two-week residency productively expanded the Dowling Studio’s intended purpose to “premiere new work, present new voices, and explore new aesthetics.” Drawing upon scientific research and personal anecdotes from patients, physicians, and family members, My Father’s Bookshelf sought to hold the mirror up to Alzheimer’s disease for the benefit of all.
My Father’s Bookshelf consists of a series of nonlinear vignettes told from the alternating perspectives of a man who suffers from Alzheimer’s, his caregivers, and research scientists. The piece centers around Bob (Robert Rosen), an affable character in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. Bob began the performance by bounding onto the stage and warmly greeting the audience—even though, he amusingly admitted, he did not know who we were or what we were doing there. He took stock of his physical surroundings, including a simple dining set downstage and, upstage, nine full-sized refrigerators arced in a semicircle. Bob’s deteriorated mental condition became evident when he announced his plan to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He turned upstage energetically, as if on his way to gather ingredients, but suddenly froze at the sight of nine refrigerators starring back at him. The daunting [End Page 106] challenge facing Bob was readily apparent; mumbling to himself, he staggered upstage and opened each refrigerator in search of lunch ingredients. One contained dress slacks, shirts, and neckties, hanging as though in a closet. When Bob opened another refrigerator, dozens of pill bottles spilled out and littered the stage. From yet another refrigerator came a Jell-O mold, which Bob jokingly remarked was his brain. When he finally located a loaf of bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly, he sat at the table and happily prepared sandwiches. Bob repeatedly interrupted himself, however, by running back and forth between the refrigerators and the table in search of ingredients that he did not need—because he had already found (and used) them just moments before. These interruptions reminded the audience of the tragic nature underlying an otherwise good-natured and comedic scene. In the post-show discussion, multiple caregivers remarked how, in this scene and others like it, Rosen portrayed with stunning accuracy the behavior of Alzheimer’s patients and their monumental struggle to recognize ordinary objects and complete commonplace tasks.
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The family scenes in My Father’s Bookshelf poignantly demonstrated the pain and havoc wreaked on the children, siblings, and spouses of Alzheimer’s victims, who also live and die with the disease every day. Bob’s family, played by Jason Ballweber, Barbra Berlovitz, Megan Odell, and Dario Tangelson, articulated how their feelings of both love...