REVIEW: Oakland University’s ‘A New Brain’ Probes Deep into the Insecurities that Plague Us All

It is rare to be able to review a show blind and even more unexpected to come away having thoroughly enjoyed it. Despite the underlying seriousness of the subject matter, A New Brain did exactly that and you only have this weekend to catch the remaining performances in the Varner Lab Theatre on the campus of Oakland University (OU).

In her notes, director Rachel M. Stevens discusses the process with which the OU School of Music, Theatre and Dance (SMTD) went about curating the shows for this season, “We were intent on choosing material that at its core spoke to celebrating diverse identities and positionality, illuminated the power of community and collaboration and kept our storytelling simple. With these values in mind, A New Brain was immediately at the top of the list.”

Often, the best inspiration springs from real-life experiences, which is the case here. William Finn (Book, Music and Lyrics) was living a successful life as a composer and lyricist for shows like Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Life as he knew it came to an alarming halt when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain condition known as arteriovenous malformation (AVM). According to dramaturg and assistant director Madeline Daunt, “While in recovery at the hospital, Finn’s close collaborator, director James Lapine (Book), urged him to write down his experiences and turn them into a song cycle.”

Finn has a reputation for drawing heavily from his experiences of being gay and Jewish in America, along with themes revolving around family, belonging, sickness, and healing. In A New Brain, the main character Gordon (Travis Darghali) is Finn.

OU SMTD Casts of ‘She Kills’ (Left) and ‘A New Brain’ (Right) Photo courtesy of JLBoone Photography

Gordon is a songwriter who is trying to write a ditty for a children’s television host named Mr. Bungee (Mark LeMire), who hilariously dresses like a frog. It is clear Gordon is struggling with the assignment and while with his friend Rhoda (Rachel Nesbitt) collapses and is rushed to the hospital. Naturally, Gordon believes he’s going to die, and the arrival of his mother Mimi (Kennedy Vernengo) does little to ease his mind even though she insists that “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine.” A questionable neurosurgeon (Alexander Hernandez) explains that there’s “Trouble in His Brain” and that Gordon will undergo an MRI. Throughout the show, Gordon experiences hallucinations featuring Mr. Bungee bullying him (“Be Polite to Everyone”). These scenes happily reminded me of the underappreciated show “Eli Stone” from the aughts.

While he waits to learn his fate, Gordon ponders why he seems to only have inherited the worst genes from his parents (“Gordon’s Law of Genetics”) and the abandonment of his abusive and neglectful father (“And They’re Off”). Not even the arrival of his lover Roger (Alec Diem) can diminish his glass-half-empty outlook. Adding insult to injury is a clueless Protestant minister (Yeshua Hardy) who keeps trying to impose his beliefs on Gordon, who just wants to be left alone to wallow in misery.

The final elements of this kettle of crazy are nurses Nancy (Faith Green) and Richard (Tuger Xiong). Nancy’s personality skews more to the sadistic side, while Richard shows a bit more compassion and vulnerability (“Poor, Unsuccessful, and Fat”). One more character to mention is Lisa (Chanelle Beach), a homeless woman. To me, she felt like the unofficial narrator of the story. Lisa appears at pivotal moments during the show soulfully singing phrases pregnant with double meaning: “We live in perilous times,” and “Change is what I want.” What a voice! I got chills every time she opened her mouth. Her duet with Roger (“A Really Lousy Day in the Universe”) was achingly beautiful and a special moment to watch unfold.

As Gordon takes stock of his life and the people and paths that have made him who he is, he is desperate to feel as if his life counted for something instead of feeling like a failure (“Brain Dead”). Before his surgery, Gordon wasn’t living life, much less enjoying it. He had a short fuse and focused on all the negative aspects of his life. It is through this raw and deeply human process that he realizes what is important and what he can let go of (“Time and Music”). So, it is with a newfound optimism (“I Feel So Much Spring”) that Gordon tentatively takes his first steps toward restructuring how he uses the talents and time he’s been given.

In past reviews, I’ve remarked on how the SMTD has successfully pulled off such amazing productions in an intimate space. Those shows were held in the Varner Studio Theatre, while A New Brain is staged in the Lab Theatre, which is about half the size and therefore creates quite a cozy atmosphere. The staging is minimal, and the action is deeply engaging. With the actors occupying every inch of usable space, it gives way to an immersive experience. None of the actors wore microphones, which made sense given the space size. But it also meant that every note needed to be strong and clear, and they were. The timing, tone, and facial expressions sell the hilarity of this production, and the beautiful, blended harmonies tug at your heartstrings. The lines are delivered with precision and punctuated with pockets of profanity and sentimentality, creating a show that is equally biting and bittersweet. The audience clearly was in sync with what was happening onstage and rewarded the hardworking actors with a robust standing ovation.

Because of the pandemic, most of the faces in the cast are new to me, and I can’t wait to see how they grow and flourish in this esteemed program. In addition, the production team consists largely of SMTD students, and I want to make sure they are recognized for their contributions to this production: Phillip Christiansen (Sound Designer), Madeline Daunt (Assistant Director/Dramaturg/Dance Captain), Joe Kocenda (Lighting Designer), Brady Jacot (Stage Manager), and Bailey Graham (Props Master/Assistant Stage Manager).

Not everyone will get the humor and eccentricity of this show, and that’s okay. But if you’re looking to escape for a bit, while having your mind stretched in an unusual, but fun way, then make sure you see this show. As Durant said in her notes, “The luxury of time is not guaranteed, but the time we have is precious.” So, make sure you take the time to see this thought-provoking piece of theatre.

As alluded to earlier, this story explores themes of grief and loss. It also contains strong language and adult themes, which may be best suited for young adults and older. Tickets are $22 general and $12 for students, and can be purchased at

Varner Lab Theatre is located at 371 Varner Drive in Rochester.

For the safety of the actors, the audience is asked to wear face masks.

This performance runs approximately 100 minutes with no intermission. The first two shows sold out, so make sure you catch one of these remaining performances:

  • Saturday, November 5 at 2 p.m.
  • Saturday, November 5 at 8 p.m.
  • Sunday, November 6 at 2 p.m.
  • Sunday, November 6 at 8 p.m.
About Sarah Hovis

Freelance wordsmith, arts appreciator, grammar geek, sports spectator, stationery snob, and world traveler, Sarah charts her own course as the owner of saliho creative. She uses her creative mind and engaging dialogue to fearlessly bring the written word to life in print and online… all while keeping a watchful eye out for the next literary adventure. You can reach her at

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