Max is a handful. The young boy with severe autism at the center of the new musical Max Understood hollers lines from The Wizard of Oz and his favorite TV commercials over and over until his parents respond with the next lines. He panics at loud noises or even something as simple as his folks turning the television off. He takes the familiar child’s gambit of repeating the question “why” to extremes.
His parents are at the ends of their ropes.
The world premiere of Max Understood at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater is a timely one because April isn’t just “the cruellest month” as T.S. Eliot had it; it’s also World Autism Awareness Month. A coproduction of the Paul Dresher Ensemble with Fort Mason Center Presents and Behavioral Intervention for Autism, the musical was written by Nancy Carlin, a longtime Bay Area actor and director, in her playwriting debut. The composer is Michael Rasbury, the resident sound designer for the off-Broadway theater company Transport Group, whose experiences raising his own autistic son inspired the musical.
While Max’s harried parents squabble over the logistics of taking care of him, the boy himself wanders out of the apartment and gets lost in the world outside, where his hyperactive imagination turns inquisitive neighbors into dreamlike creatures of fantasy. The kindly and somewhat childlike man with a leafblower (a charmingly eccentric Jackson Davis) ushers Max into a psychedelic wonderland. A nerdy kid (Jeremy Kahn), who’s nearly as hyperactive and socially awkward as Max himself, launches into a wonderfully silly rap about the presidents of Mount Rushmore. (Max is really into memorizing facts about presidents.) The older girl mocked for being overweight (Hayley Lovgren) just might secretly be a Pegasus, while the taunting mean girl (Alyssa Rhoney) becomes a sweetly soothing mermaid--or possibly a siren.
It’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s imaginary in director David Schweizer’s surreal staging. Alexander V. Nichols’ set is a single, steeply sloping platform that rotates; when combined with Micah J. Stieglitz’s projections, it becomes an ever-shifting world. Everyone’s goofily distorted inside or outside of Max’s dreamworld, including Max’s nerve-racked Mom (Elise Youssef) and self-protectively zoned-out Dad (Teddy Spencer). Searching desperately for Max, the parents seem to be traveling through their own menacing mental funhouses.
In the end the most grounding presence is Max himself, marvelously portrayed by Oakland fifth grader Jonah Broscow. Intensely staring into space, his arm shaking involuntarily, Broscow’s Max is utterly compelling and convincing, whether he’s rattling his parents with his constant demands or dazed and confused by the outside world’s disruption of his routine.
Rasbury’s music is cacophonous and not exactly pleasant, weaving in repeating samples from the television or Max’s noisy talking toys. But it becomes more melodic, even soothing, in occasional moments of calm. As grating as the score can be, it serves a purpose, putting your teeth on edge and making you feel the agitation of Max and his parents.
That agitation can be trying -- Max's world is an exhausting place. The show is only 75 minutes long without intermission, and as well performed and ultimately touching as it is, its brevity seems like a mercy. The nerve-racking onslaught of sound and repetitive chatter that audience members experience as mere onlookers can't help but make them more empathetic for anyone who has to deal directly with a similar experience every day.
While Max Understood plays at the Cowell Theater, the Paul Dresher Ensemble has created an accompanying sound installation nearby at the Fort Mason Center’s small Firehouse. Here adults and children alike (including anyone on the autism spectrum) can experiment with new instruments created by Paul Dresher, Alex Vittum and Daniel Schmidt. Some are fairly recognizable, such as larger, close cousins of the xylophone, or a stripped-down pipe organ. One instrument is just an electronic control panel full of different recorded sounds and tools for distorting them, which comes with a lengthy audio introduction about how it works.
Other instruments are more fanciful, such as a sort of wooden lottery wheel that you can feed balls into, or a giant pendulum that strums strings discordantly on one side and clatters various types of percussion on another. To accommodate participants sensitive to intense stimuli, each instrument is reportedly adjustable in volume, but when I visited it was all very loud and chaotic, even with only a few people playing.
It's intensely stimulating, which may be part of the point. It’ll be interesting to see how different groups make their way through it, navigating this discordant environment just as Max does through his exciting, overwhelming world.
Max Understood plays through April 26, 2015 at the Cowell Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit dresherensemble.org