Thursday, June 05, 2008

Hospital 2008 (episode one)

Photo/Dixie Sheridan

The saying goes "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," so the fans and fanatics drooling each year over Axis Theater Company's serial drama Hospital are not likely to be disappointed with this year's four surreal, comic installments. But from a critical point of view, it's hard to process what, other than a ridiculously experimental showcase, Axis is after. Watching Hospital 2008 episode one is akin to grabbing 35 minutes from the middle of a David Lynch film: the narratives are loose and disconnected, the actors are disturbingly present (yet blurred), and the ambiance (nicely evoked here by Kyle Chepulis's literal cavern of a set and David Zeffren's selective lighting) is unsettling. The trouble is that this serial version lacks the deepening compulsion of Lynch's craft: nothing within this segment ties in to anything (unless you count cryptic references to "an apartment"), and with such a short run-time, the mood of the piece never pulls the audience under.

In other words, the play is broken synecdoche--that is, the outside world (for the play takes place within a coma victim's mind) is not at all represented (recognizably, at least) by the symbols within it. The end result is something that exists purely as a cult experience, and that's a shame, given the strong performances from cast members like David Crabb (as a research physician with a wide vocal range), Laurie Kilmartin (as a tentative and deranged nurse), and Edgar Oliver (as the Mad Hatter). It's no surprise that the three protagonists, trapped in New York's Water Tunnel #3, are so forgettable: straight men have no place in surreal comedy.

It's hard to criticize Hospital 2008: it's not really a play (let alone a self-contained episode). There's no resolution, and it's hard to explain exactly what the obstacle is, considering that the protagonists are so aimless. Unlike Lost, which at least ekes out answers and delivers on action, Hospital remains resolutely focused on dreams, and while Randy Sharp does an excellent job of staging that undefined world (for example, televisions mounted above the stage show loops of a hospital room and a heart-rate monitor, an effect that is both anachronistic and creepy), in the end, it boils down to a series of cues (lights up, lights down) briefly enlivened by weird antics.

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