Echolalia is a type of autism where sufferers automatically repeat the words and phrases of others. As with other types of autistic patients, the prospect of leaving the house and interacting with other people can be daunting, which is clearly problematic in job-seeking situations. Writer and actress Jen McArthur, in this returning one-woman show, takes us through a day in the life of an Echolalia sufferer as she struggles to prepare herself for a job interview.
Echolalia may be more of a well thought-through snapshot of experience than a fully developed play.
As far as ‘issue plays’ go, Echolalia handles its beast delightfully. There is little in the way of script, but what there is of it is nuanced and funny. The audience is mainly left to feast on physical comedy, interpretive dance, and very aptly chosen musical numbers. McArthur dons thick black comedy eyebrows, held in a quizzical position and an upturned comedy collar on her cartoonish dress. The jokes are light, as McArthur addresses the audience sweetly and uncomprehendingly, flounces about the stage, and distracts herself from the looming interview by measuring her longest arm hair with a zest that is truly adorable. Nor is the dark side of the illness ignored. The nighttime dance sequence is hard-hitting in its expression of this woman’s lonely confusion, where McArthur enacts waking up in the middle of the night and spilling coffee all over the floor.
One thing, however, is clear. McArthur’s protagonist has spent a lot of time on her own watching television. She quotes obsessively from films, cooking programmes, and sports channels, she runs into walls like the clowns in kids’ TV shows. This quality made the show both interesting and relatable, highlighting how much all of our lives are ruled by the entertainment we watch, how many of our jokes with friends involve quoting chosen TV shows, films and song lyrics to one another. We are getting increasingly good at deriving comfort from repeated references and reiterations.
Echolalia also makes us reflect on how culture itself is a series of arbitrary learned repetitions that seem bizarre under closer examination. We lift the corners of our mouths, for instance, to express happiness, as shown in her practising to smile genuinely. A later section in the show deals with how autism affects social interaction: when practicing for her job interview, she learns basic communication skills and body language. She addresses members of the audience individually, stumbles through a few awkward moments, asking how much money someone makes, telling another that he is “quite fat.”
Echolalia may be more of a well thought-through snapshot of experience than a fully developed play. Nonetheless this is an inventive show. Jen McArthur’s performance is watchable, fun and poignant, and this show is a must-see for anyone interested in physical theatre or the depiction of mental health issues onstage.L