Dizzy Heights

Maggie’s Brain mines memory and experience to deliver a captivating performance piece about mental illness

Jennifer Ilse remembers witnessing the effects of mental illness up close, when her brother, normally a solid enough musician, would generate a disquieting cacophony at the piano or with guitar in hand.

“Once he developed schizophrenia, he did this thing where he would start playing a song and singing along with it,” she says. “But then it would morph into his own thing, loud and dissonant, really freaky. It was uncomfortable to be around it.”

It’s a moment replicated in Maggie’s Brain, a performance piece Ilse choreographs and directs, which is loosely informed by her relationship with her brother. First staged in 2005, its depiction of a young woman descending into mental disorder has evolved with additional characters and sequences. It’s a visceral depiction of a teenage girl isolated in a reality unknowable and unreachable to those around her.

Off-Leash Area, the group Ilse leads with partner and co-founder Paul Herwig (an uncannily inventive designer, he contributes the set to Maggie’s Brain), has for more than a decade staged resolutely unconventional productions in small venues, including the three-car garage behind the Minneapolis house Ilse and Herwig share. Off-Leash’s body of work combines the vocabularies of dance, theater, and visual art—which works particularly well with matters that elude straightforward dialogue and linear action.

In one harrowing scene, Maggie is at the dinner table (“a ripe place for family badness to happen,” Ilse notes) when conversation fragments and disintegrates into nonsense syllables accompanied by the harsh, unsettlingly rhythmic banging of cups and silverware—mirroring the young woman’s perceptions. Later, a scene between Maggie and her psychiatrist depicts through movement a push-pull of fear and hunger for trust amid the tempests in her consciousness.

Experiencing mental illness up close through a loved one is by turns distressing, exhausting, and intense—it litters the memory with moments that shred normality with the realization that things are not right. Ilse recognizes the importance of developing “slower, poetic sides” to the subject matter, including a moment of self-disintegration intended as “this oceanic place, a very beautiful scene.” While Ilse has played the title role previously, this time she will remain in the director’s chair. “It’s hard because it’s so personal,” she adds, noting that her brother has died since the last time it was performed.

While the characters in Maggie’s Brain aren’t based literally on her own family, in the case of her brother (“a gorgeous hockey player and state-champion cross-country runner in high school”) Ilse’s based some of her choreography on the physical manifestation of his illness.

“It was the tension, he was really fidgety,” she adds. “And then he never wanted to look at people. I could tell he was experiencing hallucinations and things, looking down and moving and twitching. He would look off to the side and laugh for no reason.”

Maggie’s Brain links these idiosyncrasies into a more universal experience that is undeniably unsettling but weaves in notes of insight, grace, and even humor. The result resonates with those who can relate from their own lives—a familiar sense of wishing for calm and peace amid the discord. Ilse remembers her mother’s request after hearing her brother’s veering off into musical improvisation after starting off with a pretty tune.

“Can you play that song from before?” she would ask. Of course the music would never again be the same.  

Maggie’s Brain appears at the Cowles Center January 24-26.