Being accepted into an Ivy League school is a badge of honor. It is an asterisk next to a name on a graduation list that screams “I am successful.” It is validation for all of the hard work and dedication that made a student stand out at the high school level. But inside the hallowed halls of that Ivy League, each person has that asterisk, and for some students, the pressures of success are too much.
“Under,” a musical that questions the mental health and treatment of students at Yale, follows one asterisk through her first year of college and her stint at a psychiatric ward. All of the actors, as well as the playwright, are Yale students or former students. The 19th annual New York International Fringe Festival is giving a voice to the students exploring mental health via the stage.
“Under” follows a Yale freshman named Serena, played by rising junior Michaela Murphy, through two different periods in her life. On one side of the stage, Serena is a student looking for a way to stand out among a crowd of talented individuals, fit in with her friends, and maintain her sense of self. On the other side of the stage, Serena is locked in the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. Both sides of the story progress at the same speed with each scene change, one ending with her admittance to the hospital, the other ending with her exit from the hospital.
Monica Hannush, “Under” playwright and rising senior at Yale, wrote what she knew. Hannush struggled with depression and bipolar disorder, she told the website Call Me Adam, and took a leave of absence at Yale after being admitted to the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. Her time in the psychiatric ward and a friend she made there helped her create a connected narrative for “Under,” Hannush told Yale Daily News.
The first line of the musical rings out over the audience and sets the tone.
“Will somebody get me my fucking meds!” Yells psychiatric patient Billy, played by rising Yale sophomore Aaron McAlevey.
The stage at Theatre 80 in East village off of St. Marks Place is thinly covered in props. A live band covers a portion of the stage, and they play everything from Jason Mraz-esque jazz tunes to mood music led by composer Julian Drucker.
Billy continues to talk to Serena, both in turnip green colored scrubs, about his history of Xanax and drug abuse. Billy is one of the few characters in the musical that doesn’t attend Yale, and the layers of problems in his life present a stark contrast to Serena, who is struggling in a psychiatric ward with the “Yale puzzle” of being like everyone else, but less successful.
Each song comes near the end of each scene and encapsulates the feelings of each character. Most importantly, each song draws attention to the larger issue that the musical is addressing. Every actor has a voice that can rapture an audience by itself, but when multiple actors sing together, the stage lights up. Many members of the cast are members of a cappella groups as well, and it shows.
At Fringe, not every audience member will be able to relate to the severity of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Most members of the audience won’t be able to relate to attending an Ivy League school. All members of the audience, however, will be able to relate to the message of growing up. Dramatic scenes of young adult angst seem ripped off of a funhouse mirror pointed at everyday, offstage, life.
A few technical problems with lighting and the microphones, which were covered with the ease of a seasoned professional, distracted a bit from the message of the musical. Yet a little grit and a little improvisation adds to the here and now urgency of certain acts.
“Under” points a heavy handed stage light at a serious issue. Four Yale students since 2010 have committed suicide, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people aged 15-24 in the U.S.
Even so, Hannush found ways to incorporate humor and entertainment. There are playful jabs and pop culture references to Angelina Jolie, Mark Zuckerburg, Belle Knox, Catholics and EDM heads. “Under” is torn from the pages of Hannush’s own life, and there are multiple meta-moments of Serena discussing play writing and song writing.
Theater is a brilliant tool for addressing social issues. The lives and the world of the characters comes alive with references to the lives and the world of the audience. At its core, a musical or a play is just a message that can’t directly change legislation and injustice, but it can change the way an individual thinks.
Put an asterisk next to “Under,” because Hannush’s strong writing, assisted by strong singing, will make you think about your own struggles, the ones you love and the angst we all want to leave behind.
“Under” will be at Theatre 80 until Sunday, Aug. 23.