Carnival Round the Central Figure
nytheatre.com review by Rachel Merrill Moss
January 14, 2011
Western medicine, religion and death—oh my! Death and the fun-house carnival of skewed expectations and manipulations that surround it are the focus of Diana Amsterdam’s play, Carnival Round the Central Figure, now playing at the IRT Theatre.
A saucy nurse wielding an oversized syringe crosses the stage at the top of the show, taking an all-seeing seat in the corner of the theatre. Lights then come up on Sheila, who devotedly sits at the foot of her terminally ill husband's sick bed, mending a pair of her daughter's jeans. This is not just another day for Sheila, no; today her husband ate half a banana and didn't throw it up! He must be on the road to recovery. But when Kate comes to visit her former co-worker, and cannot agree with his supposed recovery, both women are forced to deal with their own understandings of how best to proceed with knowledge of impending death. Interspersing scenes from a technicolored televangelist program, “Speak Straight to Jesus,” a literally blood sucking nurse, and segments from the hospital psychologist’s lecture on surviving, Amsterdam weaves together a strong argument for honest communication when dealing with death and terminal illness.
Amsterdam explores the universality of death—the fearful look of those who know its coming and the twisted, denial-worn face of those not ready to accept its presence. But the dichotomies that she sets up become a little too neat and tidy by the end. Death, dying, and mourning do not boil down to simple black and white procedures, but rather reside in shades of grey. Though refusing to outwardly admit the imminent death of a loved one may appear selfish and callous, everyone should be allowed their own process for grief.
Particularly polarizing are the intervening sub stories. The “Speak Straight to Jesus” group, peopled by pastel clowns and led by an uncannily young-John-Goodman-esque preacher, ooze with spiritual vehemence. The talented choir punctuates the preacher’s sermon on the possibility of Jesus granting eternal life and salvation, delivered while waiving a copy of The New American Bible. But this fantastical, fundamentalist image of religion is hardly a fair one in such circumstances. While death being attributed to unholy acts in life is indeed unreasonable, denying religion a space for coping with grief is just as shortsighted on the side of the non-believer. Similarly, the snippets of psychologist MaryAnne’s “Survivor” lecture, though absurdly avoiding the inevitable fact of death, bluntly nudge at some people’s necessity for blind, dumb hope in such situations. This form of hope is shown to be manipulative and ill advised, though for some can be a saving grace.
Ultimately engaging, however, Karen Kohlhaas’s direction is fluid and thoughtful, making good use of a large cast and small quarters. With little space to separate audience from action, this cozy theatre on Christopher Street swells with color and fervor. Particularly noteworthy are Shane LeCocq’s delightfully self-righteous televangelist, as well as Livia Scott’s persnickety psychologist.
Carnival Round the Central Figure’s hour and a half boisterously drums up more questions surrounding death and grieving than it can answer, but, in doing so, serves as a reminder to appreciate the nuanced needs of others.