Theater archives

Brutus and the LSD


St. Vincent’s Hospital boasts an excellent triage unit and sizable staff, but likely can’t manage a patient as large as the Roman Republic. The Republic, as presented in the nearby Axis Company’s treatment of Julius Caesar, feels poorly indeed—symptoms include labored speech, pernicious anemia, and the occasional hallucinatory episode. Better hope the government has full coffers or at least a low deductible as Caesar himself undergoes fainting spells; Brutus carries “some sick offense within [his] mind”; Portia gives herself a knife wound; Calpurnia endures nightmares; and Cassius has “a lean and hungry look.” In fact, the city itself suffers walking ghosts, yawning graves, rains of blood, and lionesses whelping in the streets—it’s quite the social disease.

Director Randy Sharp often has sickness on the brain: She’s been previously responsible for Axis’s Hospital ’00 and Hospital ’01. Axis has a mandate to produce theater that excites fear and terror; illness can easily conjure both. Unfortunately—despite an intelligently streamlined script, a few notable acting turns, and some arresting visuals—Sharp’s Shakespeare production tends toward the clinical. The 12-person cast (handily reduced by Sharp and dramaturge David Yezzi from an original dramatis personae of 35) display a lack of affect, which translates to a lack of effect. Though Edgar Oliver’s queeny Casca, Laurie Kilmartin’s creepy Portia, and John Murphy’s insinuating Cassius often prove exceptions, most of the roles appear described rather than inhabited. Perhaps this owes to some discomfort with the verse; it certainly discourages audience involvement. When Brutus runs upon his sword, for example, the feeling conjured is not pity for the noblest Roman or sorrow at his fate, but rather an appreciation of the sculptural blocking and a pleasant anticipation of the neat bit of sound design that accompanies each death.

As with Brutus’s death, the mise-en-scène consistently outpaces the performances. Axis has always had a generous budget for design elements—from the sleek stainless steel design of the theater to its enviable sound system. David Zeffrin’s severe lighting, Steve Fontaine’s eerie sound, and Kate Aronsson’s striking costumes (oddly gathered whites and bandages for sandals) all make excellent use of the funds. (Dan Hersey’s dispensable film segments do not.) Sharp employs the design well, taking a few leaves from the Peter Brook notebook to create remarkable stage pictures. But without an investment in the characters or plot, all the gadgetry appears gimmicky, not the “savage spectacle” Brutus names and Sharp intends. Despite—or, perhaps, because of—all the tools at her disposal, she can’t effect a cure for the essentially lifeless nature of the production.

Perhaps, instead of high-tech techniques, poor Rome simply needed a little TLC of the sort amusingly ill-administered in Hollywood Nurses at Chashama. While Caesar’s conspirators stab him to a pulp, here it’s pulp that’s taken a stab at—specifically, racy lesbian paperbacks of the 1960s. Two nurses at Hollyview Sanitarium, Suzanne Medford (Jennifer R. Morris) and Jenny Tyler (Denise Wilbanks), coast onto the stage in a cardboard Cadillac beneath a wash of pink gels. Attired in tight-fitting uniforms and cat-eyed sunglasses, they sing along to the Christmas ditty on the radio. “Isn’t this a jolly song?” chirps Jenny. “Jolly? It’s positively gay!” replies Suzanne.

In many a production, this would cue winking and sardonic grins, but the nurses merely smile and continue their drive. Susan Sontag famously described the camp aesthetic as one of “failed seriousness.” True enough, but this camp exercise succeeds owing to the seriousness with which the actresses perform their roles—a choice likely encouraged by director Ted Sluberski. Morris and Wilbanks recite the copious clichés of Sheila Head and Peter M. Marino’s script with boundless sincerity. Dispensing with eye rolls and knowing looks allows the audience to discover the ample comedy for itself.

The giddy plot concerns the nurses’ attempts to organize the Hollyview Holiday Medicine Ball. But unruly patients, assorted boyfriends, a vindictive gossip columnist, Suzanne’s drinking, and the love that dare not speak its name thwart their every effort. The spiking of the punch bowl with LSD culminates the series of disasters. Sluberski spices things up with low-budget effects: shadow plays, lip synchs, some remarkable use of posterboard.

But, unlike in Julius Caesar, it’s the acting that proves so restorative. Wilbanks, in platinum coif and scarlet pout, infuses Jenny with a twittering steadfastness. Whenever her motives or nursing skills are questioned, she gestures to her starched (and buxom) front, bleating, “I am a professional!” Also executing professional turns in a variety of roles are Adrianne Frost and Fred Berman. Frost is delightfully bratty as overweight teen singing sensation Taffy Cotton, and Berman excels as Jenny’s cold-fish fiancé, Dr. Brad Connors. But it’s Morris, aswirl with unarticulated sapphic longing and inebriated insouciance, who has the best bedside manner. Wonderful last year in both [sic] and Canard, Canard, Goose?, she proves that rare actress who can infuse even the clunkiest line (“You look like I need a drink”) with vibrancy and pathos. With a nurse like Morris in the house, there’s no need for a script doctor.