Think you’ve lived an exciting life? If you’re comparing it to journalist Nellie Bly, there’s a good chance that it will pale. At the tender age of 21, Bly headed to Mexico to observe the customs and traditions of the Mexican people. After that, she feigned insanity in order to be checked into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). Her goal: to investigate the abuse and horrid conditions that were rampant in the facility. After writing her expose in the New York World, it was later published it in book form. Still thirsty, she convinced her editor to travel around the globe—which she successfully did on her own.
And this was only the early part of her life. Infinite Variety Productions (IVP) and Wildrence have chosen to hone in on Bly’s brush with mental illness through a uniquely immersive theatrical experience called Nellie and The Women of Blackwell. Situated on the cusp of Chinatown, guests descend down a flight of stairs and enter the malleable space. Here, we are greeted by Bly (Kate Szekely) who reveals her plans to go undercover as a mentally compromised patient. Soon, we are transported to other rooms—where we witness acts of malnutrition in the kitchen and verbal abuse in the sleeping quarters. This all female, four person cast, comprised of Szekely, Ashley Adelman, Nicole Orabona, and Jessica Floyd keep the action moving at a brisk pace and swiftly make their point about the stigma of mental illness. Although the events occurred in 1887, the production asks what we do in 2020 about individuals who have lost their agency and voice. By pulling the audience into the story and getting them involved, the impact is more deeply felt.
While this talented quartet has a wonderfully synchronized acting style, thanks largely in part to director Jessica Schechter, one sometimes is left feeling as though the antagonists are not harsh enough. Perhaps this is a choice that was made so that no one in the audience who has suffered similar scenarios aren’t triggered. Even so, Bly gives her audience the safe word of “stunt reporter” if the show becomes too much to handle.
Program notes indicates that this is IVP’s first documentary immersive production. For an inaugural attempt, they’ve not only reached their goal, but have far exceeded it. Kudos to this whole crew for unearthing a fascinating character and stor from the past. With their brand of storytelling, the future of immersive theater is in solid hands.
Nellie and The Women of Blackwell runs through March 8 at Wildrence (59 Canal Street between Allen and Orchard Street). For tickets and information, click here.