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A CurtainUp Streaming Feature
By Elyse Sommer
As I noted in my review of The Exonerated,, the first and best known of these Blank-Jensen docu-dramas, their play-writing style is in the tradition of agitprop theater or muckraking. They begin by conducting extensive interviews which become the the foundation for stitching their message into a theatrically powerful human quilt, The stories created from these interviews.. The message of these dramatic quilts has always been powerful enough to require no scenery or costumes — just actors able to bring the people they represent to vivid life. .
Unsurprisingly COVID has seeded a more important than ever issue calling for the public's attention and support: The dismal failure of our health care system to deal with the horrible trauma of this pandemic. Depressing as its effect on all our lives has been, the good news is that the Blank and Jensen style is ideally suited to preparing and presenting it on screen instead of at a theater. To prove it: The Line, their new play about New York's health care workers who've been in the forefront of the battle to save lives in an over-burdened and increasingly chaotic health care system.
With the pandemic far from over and theaters unlikely to open any time soon, to see The Line has been created for screen viewing under the auspices of the Public Theater. So, instead of heading to their physical home on Lafayette Street, just turn on your computer or ipad and cyber navigate to the Public's YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jViLNmDbg1g) or website.(https://publictheater.org/productions/season/1920/the-line/).
Being confined to working at home like most of of us, the interviews that are the first step in crafting a Blank-Jensen play were virtual for The Line. And the seven characters who make it to the screen are a diverse lot in terms of their ethnic identity, their jobs, and the experiences they relate in a series of cross-cut monologues.
The actors representing the various characters ably capture each one's personality and emotional reaction to their ever more volatile work as well as their own or a relative's personal battle with the the deadly virus..
The three actors pictured above are particularly memorable. That's Lorraine Toussaint as Sharon, an African-Americsn nurse who lives in Harlem with a family that includes grandchildren. . . Santino Fontana as David decided that health care work was not just a nice side job for a still not aspiritng actor but a career worth committing to full tme (was it just last year that Fontsna wowed Broadway audiences in Tootsie) . . .John Ortiz as Oscar a funny but intensely committed and caring ambulance driver from Queens.
It's Oscar who first appears on screen. His telling us about himself and how he came to be an ambulance driver establishes the set-up for the story telling. We learn that Sharon's first job in a nursing home resulted in her specisl love for the "gerries." David's interest in acting came from his uncle but his switch to becoming a paramedic was the result of his spendng six months caring for his terminally ill mother.
The other first responders we meet include two doctors: Allison Pill (who I last saw on stage just a couple of years ago in the first Broadway production of Adward Albee's Three Tall Women) as Jennifer, a first-year intern at a Brooklyn hospital. Her granpsrents' stories about surviving World War II in Czechoslovskia prompted her to become a doctor since she felt it would give her a survival skill. Little did she expect to be in a war this early on in her career.
The other doctor is Vikram ( Arjun Gupta), a first generation Indisn immigrant who is an emergency room physician putting in 16-hour work shifts in the Bronx where a third of the coctors become sick — which eventually includes him., as well as Sharon and her son. Nicholas Pinnock and Jamey Sheridan round out the cast as too veteran health care workers; Dwight who was born in Trinadad and has been an oncology nurse for more than twenty years and Ed, a paramedi who's served all over the world.
The narratives move forward as the actors take turns detailing their increasingly painful stories of their despair over their inability to battle the shortages of beds, safety gear for themselves and life saving equipment for patients. While Sharon and Vikram obviously survived their infections to tell their stories, everyone is vulnerable and has some especially devastating happenings to relate. David, who's Jewish, loses his uncle and, like so many of us who have lost relatives, must mourn for him without the comforting grieving ritual of his religion. Instead of the usual week long Shivah David and his family must settle for a single zoomed gathering.
Given that these heartbreaking, frustrating and anger inducing stories are not fiction makes this a tough to watch theater outing. Dealing as everyone still is with the problems of living in this COVID world, it's hardly escape entertainment. Though it runs just an hour, it will linger disturbingly with you for much longer. So if you see it — and I think it needs to be seen — try to do so well before your bedtime to avoid a sleepless night.
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The Line a docudrama by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.
Directed by Jessics Blank
Produced for online viewing by the Pulic Theater
Cast; Santino Fontana (David), Aun Gupta (Vikram), John Ortiz (Oscar), Alison Pill (Jennifer), Nicholas Pinnock (rjDwight), Jamey Sheridan (Ed), and Lorraine Toussaint (Sharon).
From July 9th to August 4th
Made available for a second run from April 25th to June 21 st
Running Time: 60 minutes
Review by Elyse Sommer based official opening day viewing
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