Photo by Kristopher BoldtBy now we hardly notice the ads for antidepressants that cover entire pages
of magazines — the ones whose first image shows a confused mother trying to figure
out What Went Wrong, while a second, post-Prozac photograph reveals the same woman
as a smiling mom loading her kids into an SUV. Not long ago, however, such scenes
were nowhere to be found in popular print. According to Jennifer Berry’s solo
performance, Big Pharma, at Hollywood’s Hudson Guild Theater, 1997 was
the year that the Food and Drug Administration removed the ban against the commercial
promotion of prescription medicines. This established immensely profitable markets
for Madison Avenue while creating a culture of medication for Americans who now
are prescribed drugs for virtually every level of moodiness. More to the point,
Berry alleges, this campaign’s prime target group is women, who, until relatively
recently, were being treated for perceived neuroses with hysterectomies and electroshock.
While this may not be news to some, Big Pharma is an eloquent attack against not only a powerful industry but also upon the kind of conformist Stepford nation that America has become. Berry is passionate but never shrill, and although her anger seldom boils far beneath the surface, she maintains her poise and focus throughout the evening.“I am the face of Generation X,” Berry, who wrote poetry in college, tells us in a very Adrienne Rich moment. “We grew into ‘Like a Virgin’ and lip liners that made our lips fuller so we could look the part of pout. We wanted to pout!” After a decade, however, the pout would turn into the soccer mom’s what-went-wrong frown. Berry’s show, ably directed by Heidi Rose Robbins, with its own mood swings noted by Ed Salis’ simple but effective lighting plot, plays out on a spare apron furnished with a desk, table and PowerPoint screen. For about 70 minutes, Berry artfully impersonates a variety of women friends and interview subjects who succumbed to the narcotizing balm of Paxil, Zoloft and a medicine chest of other drugs pushed by Big Pharma. These women are shown as free-spirited, sometimes artistic souls who have been dulled and grounded by a variety of mood medications.Berry’s most effective character, however, is a Starbucks-sipping female ad exec who wistfully confides that motherhood is an ad campaign’s dream insofar as it guarantees homey maternal imagery while playing on moms’ fears of inadequacy. Berry, in fact, punctuates her performance with projections of print and video ads for antidepressants — ads that, despite their arty sheen, may someday be compared to cigarette commercials of the 1950s and ’60s. She especially zeroes in on PMDD — Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder. This dubious new medical diagnosis has elevated PMS crankiness into a dangerous-sounding syndrome and seems to have been hatched by drug marketers targeting “irrational” women. Berry reminds us that, at best, Big Pharma is manufacturing scary images of behavior that has been tolerated since the beginning of time, while at worst inventing maladies to fit its new products. A shrewd performer, Berry doesn’t pander. There are traces of Anna Deveare Smith in her ad exec, although her dozen-plus other characters don’t really match this smarmy gender collaborator for the reaction she provokes. Berry, who premiered her work last year at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, is also an unapologetic feminist who doesn’t blush when using the word sexism. Still, she resists what must have been a temptation to explore the double standard by which Viagra is covered by health plans (including the U.S. military’s) while the same male-run government bureaucracies deny coverage for abortion and female contraception.Despite this restraint, though, Berry also never acknowledges how many emotionally distressed people do benefit from medication, however imperfect it may be. In the final analysis, Berry makes us miss analysis — or at least the time before the drug industry took the talk out of psychiatry. On an even deeper level, Big Pharma makes us long for the time when, Berry points out, women got by their moments of pain and trial by crying on one another’s shoulders or into their handkerchiefs. As she says toward the show’s end, “Maybe my generation does need to carry around a white handkerchief.” And hold the Xanax.
BIG PHARMA | Written and performed by JENNIFER BERRY | At the HUDSON GUILD
THEATER, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through October 23 | (323) 960-7774

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