Thursday, September 19, 2019

73 (2019-2020): Review: NOVENAS FOR A LOST HOSPITAL (seen September 16, 2019)

(THEATRE'S LEITER SIDE is now a book--two books, in fact. No, make that three books! The first covers the 2012-2013 season, when, at the age of 72, I began reviewing plays. It contains full reviews and shorter comments on 150 shows, as well as a brief memoir on how I got into this critical mess. The 2013-2014 season follows, with 300 substantial reviews, so many it had to be published in two volumes (May to November; December to April). Both are available at affordable prices (paperback and Kindle) at Christmas is coming so why not consider them as gifts for your theatreloving friends and family? Click here for more information.)

"Remembering St. Vincent's"

On Monday night, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren spoke to a huge crowd in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, standing in the shadow of where the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred, and referring to it in her speech in connection with the corruption that led to the catastrophe. About a mile away in another part of the Village, I was a couple of blocks from where stood St. Vincent’s, the lost hospital lovingly memorialized in the title and action of Novenas for a Lost Hospital, Cusi Cram’s ambitious, sincerely felt, but too often flatlining journey through the century and a half of its history. 

Manhattan’s first Catholic hospital, St. Vincent’s was founded, during the cholera outbreak of 1849, in a rented house on West 13th Street by nuns of the Sisters of Charity, established by another woman named Elizabeth, America’s first saint, Elizabeth Seton. St. Vincent’s moved to Seventh Avenue and West 11th Street in 1856. There, it became renowned as a treatment center for the victims not only of such disasters as the Triangle fire, but the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and, toward the end of the 20th century, the AIDS epidemic, in the fight against which it was a leader, both in caring for the afflicted and as a research center. Financial difficulties forced its closing in 2010, amid a storm of controversy, after which it was demolished and replaced by a luxury condominium building.

Novenas for a Lost Hospital expresses the hospital’s devotion to the care of its patients by treating us—its 60 attendees—as a community gathered to honor both those who served the place as doctors and nurses and the patients who suffered and, of course, died there. This is done—at least during clement weather—by first gathering us at St. John’s in the Village, a 19th-century Episcopalian church on 11th Street, around the corner from the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater on Waverly Place.
Kathleen Chalfant, Alvin Keith. All photos: Julietta Cervantes.
When the time comes, we’re led through a long, white-walled, arched tunnel—a “horsewalk”—to a lovely, rear courtyard. There a small group of performers, several of whom will be in the play proper, engage in a ritual using music and dance (choreographed by Edisa Weeks) inspired by the theme of water. After having warm water poured over our hands, we watch a man, presumably an AIDS sufferer, within a makeshift arrangement of white curtains, ever so gently giving himself a sponge bath, as music plays. (Serge Ossorguine is the composer.) Then a group of men—a couple dressed in scrubs—perform a minuet mixed with more modern dances before we’re ushered out through the tunnel to the Rattlestick itself. It's all very 60s in a kumbaya-ish way. Later, we'll even be asked to hold our neighbor's hand.
Natalie Woolams-Torres, Leland Fowler, Ken Barnett, Kelly McAndrew, Kathleen Chalfant.
There, after ascending its long staircase, the walls adorned with artwork inspired by the AIDs epidemic, we enter the performing space (designed by Caroline Mraz), where we snake around movable, curtained units—like those placed around hospital beds—examining the numerous historical illustrations and notes detailing St. Vincent’s history. Then, the units removed, we sit three-quarters-round style on actual (therefore uncomfortable) church pews.
Justin Genna, Kathleen Chalfant, Kelly McAndrew, Alvin Keith. 
The play ensues, during much of which we keep the little, battery-operated candles we’ve been handed lit. This intensifies the solemn atmosphere, especially when the lighting—delicately designed by Stacey Derosler—dims. When the play ends, we descend the steps, file down Waverly to 11th, and, as music makers play alongside us, accompany them rhythmically by shaking colored eggs filled with tiny grains. Eventually, we make our way across Greenwich Avenue to the lovely AIDS Memorial for some more ritualizing, led by the evening’s always-excellent leading lady, Kathleen Chalfant, who plays Elizabeth Seton.
Leland Fowler, Ken Barnett, Justin Genna.
What did I forget? Oh, yes. The play. Novenas for a Lost Hospital is an episodic, nine-scene work (nine being significant to the meaning of the prayers called novenas), each scene designated as a prayer and marked by the lighting of a votive candle on a table along one wall.
Ken Barnett, Justin Genna.
I’ll note the contents of just a few scenes to provide an idea of what’s involved. In “Prayer #1,” two mid-19th-century nuns Ulrica (Natalie Woolams-Torres) and Angela (Kelly McAndrew), standing near white, cardboard models of the St. Vincent’s of the future, allude to the planned memorial for the hospital we’re actually participating in, and are joined by Toussaint, dressed in mint-green, 18th-century formalwear.
Ken Barnett.
Toussaint was a rather remarkable historical figure, Haitian-born, a freed slave, successful New York hairdresser, philanthropist with deep ties to the Catholic Church, and prospective saint. He reminds the nuns of the slaves who laid the bricks for the surrounding neighborhood. Then Seton appears, we learn all about her and her mission, and a candle is lit to remember the hospital’s 161 years of service after being “created by women who cared.”

“Prayer #2” focuses on two dedicated, modern nurses (Woolams-Torres and McAndrew), a dying AIDS patient, Lazarus (Ken Barnett), and his potential “resurrection,” with Toussaint and Seton commenting from the sidelines as his “spirit guides.” His late boyfriend, a choreographer, dances into the scene and they recall their love as well as their sexual highlights.
Kathleen Chalfant, Alvin Keith, Justin Genna, Kelly McAndrew.
“Prayer #3” moves back to 1849, so that Toussaint and Elizabeth can show Lazarus a physician, Dr. Potter (Leland Fowler), standing over a corpse with an old-fashioned surgical instrument. He’s confronted by Sister Ulrica, who objects to his experimenting on cholera victims in a Catholic hospital (he’s actually preparing for his first surgery), while Dr. Potter extols the humanity of the nuns’ difficult work. This devolves into talk about anti-Irish, anti-poor bias, and Ulrica’s vocation, before we return to Elizabeth and Toussaint using what they’ve seen to give Lazarus renewed faith, although in what is far from clear.

And so it goes, for six more “prayers,” each one a new situation, with a blend of historical chitchat and contemporary issues, none of it building toward any major development or resolution, much of it vague, and most of it interesting only for the historical tidbits it now and then drops. It’s all well-acted and effectively staged by Daniella Topol but there’s little to latch onto other than the general feeling that we’ve lost a major institution and ain’t that a shame.
Goussy Celestin.
The work veers from the personal to the educational (didactic might be better), often breaks the fourth wall, includes a number of laugh lines (some at the expense of Catholicism), allows for multiple anachronisms, includes both historical and contemporary costumes (designed by Ari Fulton), introduces dance within dramatic scenes, and has most of the actors playing more than one role.
As drawn, none of the characters is particularly interesting since even the historically important ones—Venerable Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith) and Elizabeth Seton—serve more as icons than as real people. Both, however, especially Toussaint, could be the subject of a major film or drama.
Otherwise, and I hate to say this about a play dealing with such issues, Novenas for a Lost Hospital fails to bring its subject to dramatic life. In fact, as each scene ends with a new votive candle being lit, it’s hard not to start counting them and waiting, praying even, for the lighting of the ninth and final one.

Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre
64 Waverly Place, NYC
Through October 13