Death Watch

A clown, a playwright, and an actress wait to die in a Nazi hospital that, through the magic of theater, exists simultaneously in the present and the 1940's. A connection between Nazi Germany and the contemporary New York theater scene is a tricky and potentially offensive one to make, but Visible Theater's intrepid production of Krankenhaus Blues attempts it nonetheless. Krankenhaus brings together Fritz, Bruno, and Anka, three characters who have been selected for the Third Reich's scientific experiments on "lower-caste" citizens (two are physically disabled and one Jewish). Yet when we first meet Bruno, he is a homeless, out-of-work theater professional in today's New York. Bruno's first monologue recounts a dream of being imprisoned in a Nazi hospital called the Krankenhaus. Soon enough, he actually finds himself there, with little explanation. Nor is there really any need for one; playwright Sam Foreman has constructed a free-form narrative that seems more interested in characterization and style than temporal logic.

Bruno, Fritz, and Anka mull over their wasted careers, in both New York theater and Weimar theater, and they fall madly in and out of love with each other, almost at random. The scenes play out as vignettes, each one endeavoring to connect the plights of abused, forgotten people in both time periods. As characters are gradually killed off by a looming Nazi nurse (an uncredited cameo by Angela DeMatteo, Visible Theater's managing director), the others barely seem to remember them after they've gone.

The three-person cast skillfully conveys the play's farcical and bleak material, along with a few snatches of sung music that were chillingly composed and performed by solo violinist Helen Yee. As Anka, Christine Bruno comes off as both seductive and repellent—she is an institutionalized, handicapped woman who wishes her father had acted on his sexual attraction toward her. The role is no easy task for an actress, but Bruno merrily revels in such social taboos.

Joe Sims's performance as the clown Fritz is a unique exercise in compounding stereotypes. "I'm a crippled, black queer with a background in commedia and mime living in Nazi Germany," he says early in the play. "Everything about me is political." Fritz gets most of the show's laughs by deadpanning his lines, until his impassioned oration toward the end of the play, which Sims delivers with superb precision.

Bruno, played capriciously by the fast-talking Bill Green, serves as Foreman's mouthpiece for commenting on the Holocaust, the theater industry, and society in general. Also the closest thing to a "lead" in this play, the character energetically drives the action forward by suggesting playful activities (like acting out a skit) or making doomed sexual advances toward Anka.

Donna Mitchell's direction is subtle and crisp. There is no room for elaborate staging in the Dorothy Strelsin Theater. Coupled with this spatial limitation is the fact that some of the actors actually are disabled. This requires characters to cross the stage only when they absolutely must, and Mitchell and the cast make every physical movement count.

The theater's compact space also adds a lot to the piece's claustrophobia. Mitchell makes ample use of the theater's intimacy; characters can sit in seats with audience members and are free to address them directly.

Kimi Maeda's minimal scenic design is certainly effective, but I found myself wanting a more striking representation of the Krankenhaus. A few chairs and a small table suggest many things, and perhaps that was the idea: to accommodate the script's time jumping. But without a splash of signifying color or a distinct piece of furniture, the line between suggesting "anywhere" and suggesting "nowhere" becomes very thin.

Paul A. Jepson's lights are efficient but unremarkable; the theater's playing space is simply too limited, and the lighting grid is too close to the stage. The good news is that everyone had an up-close look at Kimi Maeda's richly detailed costumes. All three characters wear some variation of a striped, concentration camp uniform; Bruno's is faded and torn, Fritz wears the pants under his robe, and Anka's pants are cut off into shorts.

Unfortunately, Krankenhaus Blues suffers when Foreman indulges himself in the play's "theater commenting on theater" formula. As Fritz expresses in his final monologue, the play deals with homelessness, genocide, and incest, but the characters don't really reflect on those things; instead, they use them as tools for reflecting on theater and art. At the end, though, Fritz manages to deflate some—but not all—of the play's self-important pretensions by attacking the structure and style of the play itself.

Despite its heavy-handedness, Krankenhaus Blues is raucous in its political incorrectness and at times blazingly clever. The three-person cast deserves most of the credit for this production's vitality and zing.

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