nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 5, 2008
Episode 4 (July 18, 2008)
The conclusion of Axis Company's Hospital 2008 is spectacularly satisfying and, what's better, affecting and moving in unexpected ways. The theatrical brilliance of the piece is no surprise given what's come before. But its deep appreciation for our singular humanity—its life-affirming uplift of the series' conclusion, reminiscent in the best possible way of Our Town—really caught me unawares. This show about the last hours of a comatose man's life reminds us strongly to honor our time with one another; to never squander or waste anything that's precious.
Episode 4 skillfully pulls together all the structural and thematic ideas that have been introduced by its predecessors, providing clarity and cohesion without sacrificing subtlety or depth. The playwriting, which is credited to the company, is remarkable; beautiful in its simplicity, as when the protagonist's Shift Supervisor gives him a brief quiz about what's just happened to him, or when the protagonist himself—a tunnel worker helping to build a new conduit for the city's water supply—talks about the importance of his job.
Let me conclude my exploration of this extraordinary four-part production by reiterating my admiration for all of its creators: the set by Kyle Chepulis, the lighting by David Zeffren, the sound by Steve Fontaine, the original music by Randy Sharp, and the cinematography by Ben Wolf are especially gorgeous and invaluable; and the work of the entire cast, led by Brian Barnhart as "Traveller #2," is superlative. Kudos to all concerned and to director Sharp for creating a serial that builds in quality, emotion, and significance as it progresses.
Episode 3 (July 3, 2008)
This series just keeps getting better and better: Episode 3 is more intense and more all-consumingly involving than its predecessors. The opening prologue on film—which I think provides enough information so that any newcomer to Hospital 2008 can follow the story, even if s/he missed the first two episodes—contains some footage we've already seen plus some new footage; what I was aware of, throughout, was a sense of mortality. I thought: what would it be like to realize that the day you're going through was the last day you'd spend on Earth fully conscious and alive?
The live action scenes that follow, in the tunnel and then in the hospital, are now all clearly the distorted memories of the play's protagonist, a man in a coma who is revisiting that last day I just alluded to—revisiting it in his mind while a team of doctors perform a surgery on him that does not go well at all.
Director Randy Sharp and her remarkable collaborators (on and off stage) balance an eerie dark humor with a mood that's at once supremely frightening and richly (and oddly) life-affirming, especially in the burlesque-of-a-hospital scene that occupies the center of Episode 3 (and the actors portraying the hospital staff give performances that are accordingly deeper and more resonant than in prior weeks; particularly Laurie Kilmartin's human, oh-so-fallible Nurse). This evocation leads us brilliantly into the final sequence of the evening, in which the recurring strangers in the tunnel (see below) appear once again, this time in the guises of Charon, Hades, and Persephone. Our hero is starting to understand what his fate is, following his catastrophic accident. I, for one, am ready to return for the final chapter of Hospital 2008, to experience it through his eyes. I sense transformation ahead...
Episode 2 (June 21, 2008)
Episode 2 of Axis Company's Hospital 2008 is even more riveting than Episode 1 was. It's spookier too; one of the most astonishing things about this serial show so far is how effectively it renders, in an intimate indie theater space, the complete netherworldly phantasmagoric environment that is inside the protagonist's sub/un-conscious memory.
We acquire some new information about what happened in the catalytic tunnel accident. And we learn more about the comatose traveler's state of mind at the time of the accident with the visitation of two new characters in a scene set in the tunnel—the legendary John Henry himself, with an assistant in tow, providing clues about the way out of danger. (Of course, this probably isn't actually John Henry.)
At the hospital (still rendered, ingeniously and eerily, on the same tunnel set) we meet someone who the doctors and nurse think is applying for a job. But she is obviously trying to find out what's happening to the man in the coma. And we understand, better than in Episode 1, that everything the doctors and nurse say is being filtered through the limited processing capability of said man in coma.
George Demas plays John Henry and is at once frightening, funny, and ineffably sad. Britt Genelin is the "applicant." Other cast members are as in Episode 1; all are spectacularly good.
Director Randy Sharp and the rest of the folks at Axis have created something that's entertaining, engaging, and—so it now seems—utterly addictive. I'm looking forward to Episode 3!
Axis Company's annual serial Hospital has been going on for nine years, and somehow I had never seen it until now. The first episode of this year's four-part play, which is set inside the mind of a comatose man seriously injured in the collapse of a tunnel (part of New York's underground water system), is arresting, thrilling, tantalizing, and—in terms of its physical production—spectacularly impressive. So far, I'm hooked.
The one-act drama plays out in three scenes plus a filmed prologue. This prologue is fascinating, interweaving scenes in what appears to be the apartment of the protagonist (where various details and seeming trivialities foreshadow what's to come) with scenes in the tunnel where the protagonist (called "Traveller" in the program) works. What follows is a quick and alarming representation of the accident: we don't know its exact nature, but we do know that afterward, the Traveller plus two of his colleagues are lost in the dark, underground. They radio for help but it's not clear that any is forthcoming.
The play then cuts to a hospital room, which is depicted on the same tunnel set simply by the arrival of a pair of doctors and a nurse; it's also shown to us on three video monitors above the stage that alternately provide the comatose patient's P.O.V and his heart monitor. This scene melds the eerie surreal qualities that permeate the edges of what we've already witnessed with a more blatant absurdity. When we return to the tunnel, characters from Alice in Wonderland turn up—the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, and the White Rabbit—and the Traveller, though surprised to encounter new people down here, is nonchalant vis-a-vis their startling identities.
It's all very discombobulating and very magnetic. Nothing is entirely clear and yet the elusive nature of a subconscious dream state is thrillingly conveyed. There's a cliffhanger ending, inviting us to return for Episode 2.
Director Randy Sharp's expert story-telling is only the beginning of the roster of remarkable accomplishments on display in Hospital 2008. The cast does expert work, with Brian Barnhart, Ian Tooley, and Marc Palmieri entirely convincing as the possibly abandoned (and, in some cases, possibly deceased) tunnel workers; George Demas, Edgar Oliver, and Britt Genelin are wonderfully daffy and creepy as the Wonderland figures; and Laurie Kilmartin, Paul Marc Barnes, and David Crabb are comically off-kilter as the hospital personnel.
The film work—by cinematographer Ben Wolf and editor Laura Weinberg—is exceptional. And the design work for the live stage production are exemplary, among the best of its kind I've seen for theatre in any sector in NYC. Kyle Chepulis has transformed the stage into a believable tunnel, with craggy and convincingly damp stone walls and nooks and crannies leading off rather spookily. David Zeffren's lighting and Steve Fontaine's sound complete the ambience, combining realism with horror-film scariness in a manner that keeps us engaged and on the edge of our seats throughout. Matthew Simonelli's costumes—whimsical for the Wonderland characters, naturalistic for the Travellers, and somewhere in between for the hospital staff—are excellent.
The overall effect is to transport the audience to a world we've never been to for about 35 minutes...and to leave us hungry for more of the experience. Check back here for a report on Episode 2 in a couple of weeks.