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Robert Viagas in Blackwell Asylum

Nellie and the Women of Blackwell

By Ashley Adelman

Reviewed by Robert Viagas

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In 1887, an investigative reporter named Nellie Bly faked insanity so she could be committed to a notorious New York City lunatic asylum, as they were called in those days. Bly planned to report on what she had heard were appalling abuses of the mentally ill there.

In the new play Nellie and the Women of Blackwell, billed as a “terrifying immersive theatrical experience,” audiences join her and undergo some of the horrors she found there.

Staged by Jessica Schechter in a claustrophobic cluster of too-dark or harshly-lit rooms in the basement of an old building on the Lower East Side, Nellie and the Women of Blackwell, asks small groups of audience members—16 at most—to adopt the names and personas of actual women who endured “treatment” at the facility. We accompany Nellie (Kate Szekely) as she subjects herself to recreations of the mental and physical anguish suffered by the inmates there: bathed in filthy ice water bath, fed scraps of bread infested with cockroaches, strapped to a metal cot, beaten, bullied, insulted, and gaslighted by a nightmarish pair of sadistic nurses (Nicole Orabona and Janessa Floyd).

The experience proves very harrowing in spots. Audience members are given a safe word to be released if the experience gets too intense.

In a prelude to the play, we are shown a list of reasons women could be declared a lunatic, including excess sexual desire and a bump on the head. Many were imprisoned because they didn’t speak English and were assumed to be mentally deficient. Representing the hundreds of such inmates who passed through the bowels of Blackwell is a pitiful young blonde woman named Tillie, who responds to the asylum’s ministrations by falling deeper and deeper into actual insanity. She gives the most heartrending performance of the evening, and it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that she is played by the author of Nellie and the Women of Blackwell, Ashley Adelman.

At the performance reviewed, the actors stayed resolutely in character despite one audience member who resisted immersing himself in the performance and kept trying to make a joke of it all.

Though aspiring to the tradition of immersive theatre landmark, Sleep No More, this show has been produced on a shoestring, but uses its low budget to suggest the ugliness and sparseness of the Blackwell Asylum’s environment.

Lessons of the play’s experience will not be lost on New Yorkers who see how a contemporary group of “outsiders”—illegal immigrants—are treated today.

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A co-production of Infinite Variety Productions and Wildrence, Nellie and the Women of Blackwell  is playing a limited run through March 7 at Off-Off-Broadway’s Wildrence performing space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.


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