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Novenas for a Lost Hospital

"Sometimes I look at a tree, like an oak, and it seems so noble and sure. And I wonder will humans ever feel rooted again? Part of our problem now is our roots are so shallow. We think we can be replanted on a daily basis. We can't. To stay in one place and dig in deeply matters. Today, just today, let's try to remember what it feels like to be rooted." — JB
Kathleen Chalfant (Photo: Julieta Cervantes).
Small miracles bookend Rattlestick Theater's Novenas for a Lost Hospital in Greenwich Village.

The first miracle takes place beside the Open Door, a passageway in the courtyard of St. John's Episcopal Church that was used by HIV+ patients seeking anonymous spiritual care and support. Inside that courtyard, a small band of players lead the audience in chant, ritual, and dance, guided by Goussy Celestin, a performer who radiates accepting grace. As the audience moves through the space, disturbing, discomfiting images clash with a century-bending pavane between patients and doctors. The final minutes of this section in the play border on the absurd and shouldn't work, but the assembly of images and sounds somehow wraps up immense sorrow and immense joy in one lovingly snug blanket.

Miracles can't last forever, though, or they cease to feel miraculous. And most of Cusi Cram's play, at least the part that takes place inside a theater, treads water rather than turning it into wine.

Novenas for a Lost Hospital , directed by Rattlestick's Artistic Director Daniella Topol, takes an ambitious sojourn through the history of St. Vincent's Hospital, from its 1849 founding to its decline and fall in the last decade. Kathleen Chalfant leads the proceedings as Elizabeth Seton, the American nun (and later saint) whose followers founded St. Vincent's. (Chalfant was nominated for a Tony for Angels in America , a play whose own St. Vincent's scenes and ecstatic fever dream energy are ever-lurking here.) She's playfully noble but also saddled with some of the text's most labored lines, like "We are all guests in the hospital of life."

Also along for the ride: Pierre Toussaint (Alvin Keith), a fascinating figure who was born into slavery but became a hairdresser to the wealthy and a major New York City philanthropist in the mid-1800s. He deserves his own play, but it's not so clear that he needs to be in this one.

A foggily defined premise — Seton and Toussaint appear as visions to a surviving AIDS patient (called Lazarus and played by Ken Barnett) — mixes with a meta-theatrical conceit in which Seton decides to lead the audience through a novena, nine prayers of remembrance. Nine is a large number, and the pressure on Cram to come up with a different angle for each scene is much too palpable.

The AIDS duets work best— especially a moving scene between a dancer with AIDS and the caring nurse who keeps the patient's hopes of a Paris dance tour alive . Those roles, respectively, are played by an ebullient Justin Genna and the warm Kelly McAndrew, doing lovely work in a series of parts one wishes were more expansively written. Meanwhile, the sojourns to a cholera outbreak that largely impacted Irish immigrants in 1849 flatline fairly quickly, especially when Cram explicitly compares the two epidemics.

An audience dance break that feels much more forced than the one in the courtyard, a cardboard hospital model that two nurses struggle to assemble, and an operating theater lecture co-delivered by doctors from two time periods are scattered among the over-stuffing. That's despite the shimmering design from Carolyn Mraz, a menagerie of blue butterflies dangling from the ceiling beside folded memories penned by past audience members.

But just when you're starting to conclude that, in trying to do too much, Novenas for a Lost Hospital maybe hasn't done very much at all, along comes another miracle. Those folks from the garden appear again, dancing and singing and blocking traffic to lead us out of the theater and down the block to the AIDS Memorial, across the street from where St. Vincent's used to be. At the performance I reviewed, a man who had been sitting near the memorial joined the song with an impressive voice, then asked why all of us were marching by.

And after a few minutes of closing words from Chalfant, the audience, believe it or not, stayed under the memorial's arches for a long while, talking to each other and to the actors, sharing memories and kindling hope.

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PRODUCTION NOTES Novenas for a Lost Hospital by Cusi Cram
Dramaturgy by Guy Lancaster
Directed by Daniella Topol
Cast: Ken Barnett, Goussy Celestin, Justin Genna, Steven Jeltsch, Alvin Keith, Shayne Lebron-Acevedo, Kelly McAndrew, Noriko Omichi, Rafael Sánchez, Laura Vogels, and Natalie Woolams-Torres
Set Designer: Carolyn Mraz
Costume Designer: Ari Fulton
Lighting Designer: Stacey Derosier
Sound Designer: Brian Hickey and Sinan Zafar
Composer: Serge Ossourguine
Choreographer: Edisa Weeks
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, no intermission, walking and stairs included
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224, Waverly Place
From 9/5/19; opening 9/19/19; closing 10/13/19
Wednesdays-Mondays at 7
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 9/13 performance

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