A descent into sanity

Philly Fringe 2023: Humble Materials presents The Yellow Wallpaper

3 minute read
A woman stands against a yellow backdrop with black text reading The Yellow Wallpaper, groped by hands painted the same.
No longer a cautionary tale? Humble Materials reimagines ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in this year’s Fringe. (Image courtesy of Humble Materials.)

I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper in high school. At the time, the story of a woman slowly descending into madness, confined by her husband to a room covered in the titular wallpaper, felt like a relic: something that may have been a cautionary tale then but is unlikely to happen now. But between the confinement of the coronavirus pandemic and the American judiciary’s systemic denigration of women and LGBTQ people, the work is as urgent and important as ever—which this dance/theater Fringe adaptation from Humble Materials demonstrates at Pennsport’s Philly PACK.

More than one in five American adults live with a mental illness, ranging from depression and anxiety to illnesses classified as “serious mental disorders,” including PTSD, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder. Symptoms of some of these illnesses—especially anxiety and depression—spiked during the coronavirus pandemic as lockdowns kept individuals in isolation and distancing changed the norms of social interaction, leading many Americans to seek help for their mental illnesses for the first time.

Though certainly not the same thing as institutionalization, the pandemic lockdowns did cause many people to feel trapped, unable to leave their homes and live their lives. So when we meet Jane (Yasmin Roberti) in this Yellow Wallpaper, we are meeting someone we can relate to. At first, it’s unclear whether she’s just spending part of lockdown in a house somewhere in a vaguely rural area or whether she has been sent to a facility (and if the latter, why), but what is clear is that she has been spending too much time in her room, with the ugly yellow wallpaper …because the wallpaper (Carolyn Breyer, Amy Henderson, Jessica Noel, Chachi Perez, and Lisa Vaccarelli) is starting to talk to her.

An influencer, Jane is still going live from her “vacation,” but we see quickly that as soon as the feed stops, she is exhausted. All she really wants to do is rest, but the wallpaper is telling her to keep up with her diet, her grooming, her “sponcon,” and followers. Jane’s doctor is tapering her off of her redundant medications (listed by the wallpaper in a Fosse-esque dance routine), but as she experiences the symptoms of withdrawal, the wallpaper becomes an even bigger force in her life, not just maintaining her schedule but physically moving her from place to place. The choreography becomes about surrounding Jane and controlling her, and when she dares to move or dance on her own, the wallpaper acts, at least at first, with horror and embarrassment.

The narrator of Gilman’s story begins to believe there is a woman living in the wallpaper and eventually, perhaps, becomes her. Jane has five beings living in her wallpaper and begins to become one of them, too.

The star of The Yellow Wallpaper should be its choreography (by Breyer, Henderson, Noel, and Perez), but the dancing, in fact, comes in second to the design. Co-creator Natalie Fletcher is an award-winning body painter (you might recognize her from the first season of Netflix’s Skin Wars), and she did a phenomenal job of making the five wallpaper performers blend into the yellow wallpaper hanging on the back wall of the stage (also painted by Fletcher). The moment the lights came up at PACK, many in the audience gasped at the five performers positioned up against the wallpaper, both blending in and standing out from the backdrop. As they move around the stage, Fletcher’s work becomes especially impressive; every part of these performers, save for their hands and feet (a decision that I believe was intentional), feels like the wallpaper is moving, talking, dancing.

It's an arresting visual and one that, even without the solid show behind it, would be worth the trip to Pennsport to see.

What, When, Where

The Yellow Wallpaper. Created by Natalie Fletcher and Jessica Noel, directed by Monica Flory, with choreography by Carolyn Breyer, Amy Henderson, Jessica Noel, and Chachi Perez. $20-$25. Through September 16, 2023, at Philly PACK, 233 Federal Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or


Philly PACK is a wheelchair-accessible venue.

Masks are available but are not required.

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