July 16, 2004

Guiding Light

Hospital 2004 at Axis Theatre
Strangely enough, people returning from the dead, strangers with magical powers, and gratuitous sexual exploits are not exclusive to experimental theatre: they are also widely used in soap operas. Leave it to the Axis Company, well-known for its performances of strange, technologically advanced landscapes, to not only recognize this kinship, but to cultivate it into a hybrid artistic form. That is what they have done with Hospital, a serial performance piece that is now in its sixth year of baffling and intriguing audiences.

Each year, the company sends a new character into a coma, who is doomed to explore the inner-workings of his or her own mind through four separate episodes that one can follow throughout the summer or just stop by to view one installment.

This year, they have placed a traveler from a "mid-nineteenth century war" as the center of the action. In episode one (the subject of this review), we discover how the traveler meets his unfortunate fate and the beginnings of his subconscious journey. In the opening sequence (astoundingly filmed by Dan Hersey), we meet two men who are ambushed in a field. One, dying from a gunshot wound, pleads for the other to take his belongings and go to find help. The other promises to do so, but abandons his comrade's knapsack and, while running from the fighting, is caught in a huge explosion that sends him flying and into the world of the "hospital."

Trying to figure out what happened and where they are, a cliché scene between the two men could just as easily have been authored by Sartre as it could have by a sitcom writer. From there, however, we encounter a series of dark and delightful characters, played by a talented ensemble, including a pair of extremely confused doctors, an array of bizarre nurses (including a charming and all-too brief appearance by Laurie Kilmartin), Romantic writer Mary Shelley (played with marvelous morbidity and neurosis by Margo Passalaqua), and a Wizard of Oz-esque overseer referred to as "The Carol" (the hilarious Jim Sterling). No matter what their role in the hospital, each seems to be just as frustrated and lost as the next. The wanderer attempts to get his bearings, Shelley attempts to tell the most frightening tale, and The Carol attempts to retain his pomp while stumbling over his commands to the hospital-workers.

What results is the commencement of a clinical Alice in Wonderland, just as enjoyable and fascinating as it is convoluted. Combine this with an eerie set and dazzling technical effects and the company has a wonderful ambience to fit the mood of the 1865-rural-supernatural-hospital-modern-day-New York theme. And true to the serial spirit, the first episode of Hospital entertains and involves, but most importantly leaves the audience with more questions than answers. And with the low-commitment, half hour running time, Hospital panders to a lower, disengaged form of television-watching (sans commercials), while still providing the satisfaction of having attended a solid, effective piece of theatre. In blending this high and low, Hospital offers an incredibly accessible and artistically rich experience that will keep the audience coming back for more.


photo: Dixie Sheridan