Mental illness has long been the subject of fascination in theatre. From depression to obsession, theatremakers have consistently been attempting to find the best way to sensitively represent mental issues onstage. Perhaps then, Ramesh Meyyappan has stumbled upon something truly special in attempting to weave in an element of (dark) comedy and his signature style of physical theatre to give the issue a new, accessible spin while touching on the sheer depth and multiple facets of mental illness.
Off Kilter is a piece that starts off innocently enough, where sole performer Ramesh performs simple daily routines of his character Joe Kilter. Ramesh devotes what feels like a fair amount of time to this sequence, allowing audiences to really get into the flow of Kilter’s daily life and regularities, from tossing and catching his keys before leaving for work to returning home and pondering at his table with the same order of hand movements each time. Ramesh’s commitment to his actions allow for the movements to feel deliberate and measured, lacing his routine with a machine-like precision.
Yet, the audience becomes aware that something is a little amiss when day breaks, and Kilter is awakened by not one but six alarm clocks, each ringing one after the other as he comically pulls them out of increasingly unlikely places in his home or body. This is a man who is obsessed with keeping pace with time and staying in step, yet time is his mortal enemy, with a dimly lit, almost lunar analog clock that hangs behind him, unerringly ticking on, and at times even mercilessly speeding up, its hands rapidly spinning on while Kilter falls asleep.
When a mysterious envelope falls from the ceiling though, Kilter’s life goes, well, off kilter. Here, Ramesh displays complete mastery of physical comedy; in full control of his body, he engages in a fierce battle against himself as on one hand, he refuses to read the contents of the envelope and attempts to head to work as usual, while his other hand (literally) fights for attention and pulls him towards the envelope, his expression aghast and wide-eyed with pain. His routine thrown off by the letter, he begins to crack, his quirks beginning as reveal themselves as he obsessively wipes away at the table and floors. Ramesh effectively gives physical form to internal fear, anxiety and OCD, and coupled with Joel Nah’s poignant violin music, elevates the simple act of receiving bad news into a melodramatic, almost operatic scene as we watch him ebb away from his control over his life.
As Kilter continues to agonize and lose his grip on reality, the play turns dark, and becomes the story of one man against the world as literally everything, including his own home environment, threatens to overwhelm and destroy his sanity. The aforementioned letter comes alive, and with ominous, ‘Jaws’-like music, disappears from Kilter’s hands before menacingly sneaking up on him from under the table with no visible human force to propel its movements. It is illusory tricks and ‘magic’ like this that differentiate Off Kilter from simply being an ordinary theatre performance, and Ramesh’s visual language allows for a truly unique way to evoke the terrifying headspace of an OCD person as reality itself begins to warp.
The remainder of Off Kilter is filled with an eccentric, cartoon-like series of unreal occurrences that befalls Kilter as he tries to stay sane. Pay close attention; many of these are blink and you miss it moments, from a biscuit mysteriously growing larger in Kilter’s hands to mischievous stationery that elongates and multiplies, disappears and erases on their own accord. Kilter becomes cursed with a Midas touch, where everything he comes into contact with twists and takes on a life of its own, all with the intent to confound and confuse the poor man. One is simultaneously amused by the dubious antics of these non-living objects and filled with a sense of dread and pity for Kilter’s plague of hallucinations as the laws of physics stop applying to the previous safe space of home.
Ramesh’s unique method of representing the world through the eyes of a man with OCD is refreshingly light, yet laced with a dose of real emotion as we watch him struggle through seemingly simple acts that turn into impossible feats under pressure. There are moments that can only be described as pure magic as we watch Ramesh’s incredible creativity at play through physical theatre mastery, bringing both delight and devastation in equal doses as we watch one man’s world turn upside down in the endless fight against his inner demons. In a play completely devoid of the spoken word, Ramesh’s endearing stage presence and impeccable use of his signature visual language connects immediately to each and every audience member, allowing the seasoned performer to speak volumes about the fear and stigma associated with mental illness.
Performance attended 11/10/17
Off Kilter plays at 72-13 from 11th – 14th October. Tickets are sold out for 13th and 14th (Night), but still available for 12th and 14th (Matinee), available from SISTIC