Hospital 2011

For the eleventh time, Axis Company is presenting a new edition of their extraordinary serial Hospital, tracking the inner life of an individual in a coma.

This year, the Traveller (as the comatose protagonist is always called) is a woman, a teacher who has apparently fallen from a building during a rainstorm, possibly as a result of an epileptic-type seizure. You'll note the words "apparently" and "possibly" in that sentence: they're there because Hospital is, among many other things, a mystery story, one in which the audience, over the course of four episodes unfolding over a couple of months, susses out what's really going on behind the subconscious/dreamlike/nightmarish scenes depicted in the play. Hospital's style is wonderfully, bizarrely off-kilter; baroque, even: gathering the interconnected but often seemingly random ramblings of the patient's mind onto the intimate stage of the Axis Theater, with a level of imagination and invention that never ceases to amaze.

The first installment of this year's Hospital seems more linear and literal-minded than others I've experienced in the past, but I'm not feeling complacent about anything; not yet. As always, the evening begins with a "premise film" in which events from our Traveller's life are depicted more or less realistically. The most intriguing aspect of the film this year is that it includes information about the Traveller as a little girl as well as in the (presumed) present day. We watch the girl go through a hospital stay that includes an MRI examination, under observation for seizures. And we watch the adult, at work during the last day of the school year.

Following the film section come three scenes that will be familiar to any past Hospital attendees. There's a sequence in which the Traveller "exits" the coma to try to grasp what's happening to her; then a raucous, darkly comic romp with series regulars Sandy the Nurse, Terry the Research Physician, and Barry the Specialist (played, as always, by the invaluable Laurie Kilmartin, David Crabb, and Paul Michael Barnes, respectively); and then finally there's the Traveller's dream, in which (this week) she is visited by characters from familiar nursery rhymes such as the Itsy Bitsy Spider and Jack (who went up the hill with Jill).

The cast includes Axis veterans Regina Betancourt, Brian Sloan, Lynn Mancinelli, Matt McGorry, and Britt Genelin (as the Traveller), along with newcomer Jason Nahum. The inimitable Edgar Oliver is on hand as well. Axis's remarkable design team does their usual brilliant work creating Hospital's unique ambience: sound designer Steve Fontaine and lighting designer David Zeffren have been part of the Hospital team since the very beginning. At the helm is Randy Sharp, who accomplishes here what she always does—engagingly and compellingly commanding her audience to see a world they think they understand in a new and astonishing way.

And, oh yes, Sharp and company have done their most important task perfectly: I can't imagine not catching Episode 2, in a couple of weeks.