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Off Broadway

He Says: Rattlestick’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital Flies Like a Butterfly Lovingly Transporting Pain and Loss

He Says: Rattlestick’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital Flies Like a Butterfly Lovingly Transporting Pain and Loss

Filing one by one down an old horse lane into an enchanted enclosed courtyard, the communal theatrical experience, created by playwright Cusi Cram (A Lifetime Burning) and Rattlestick’s Artistic Director Daniella Topol (Ironbound), begins to construct itself from the ground up. The ghostly spirits realign, giving us a musical cleansing experience backed by period play and disco anthems. It’s a soulful albeit oddly scattered beginning, as the world premiere of Novenas for a Lost Hospital floats the memories of those lost to plagues and tragedies upward into the night air like blue butterflies on the breath of saints.

The remembrance play sets out to celebrate the 161-year-old Catholic institution that once sat strongly and boldly just down the street from the church where the majority of the play takes place. Fancy condos sit there now, garishly smiling down telling us all to forget, but this experiential march pleads the opposite. In the heartfelt meandering vision of a past all that is connected to St. Vincent’s Hospital, from the green open door sanctuary to the AIDS Memorial down the street where the play solemnly ends, strikes out forward, floundering and flying in a complicated past and present. The storied piece hits the mark the majority of the night, but fades in and out of connective consciousness. The examination tries to encapsulate all that transpired in the hearts and minds of those involved, failing at times, but finding the heart beat just often enough to keep us hopeful throughout its steadfast 2 1/2 hour flight. It’s a tearful dig down into dismissal, death, and devotion of past trauma where it collides with our soul, exploring  a convergence of beliefs and duty played out by a crew filled with the conviction of those determined to inform.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes
Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

A novena, from the Latin word for nine, is an ancient tradition of devotional private or public prayer said nine times over successive days or weeks. Or in this particular case, nine prayers said in succession for a lost ideal and cause, something that the venerable St. Vincent, the patron saint of hospitals, would have bowed down for. Novenas for a Lost Hospital sets out to remember and celebrate, nine times over, the institute named for him, St. Vincent’s Hospital. The history of the often lamented institution that is sorely missed by those touched by its caring hands resonates within this construction, but the main draw that brings me to this Rattlestick event is the tragic but beautiful history of care and attention this Catholic hospital gave to the thousands of HIV/AIDS patients that arrived at its doors in need of treatment and who were not welcomed in the same manner elsewhere.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes
Ken Barnett, Justin Genna. Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

In the press release, Dramaturg Guy Lancaster writes, “St. Vincent’s Hospital was started inside a rented house on East 13th Street in 1849 during a cholera epidemic by four nuns from the Sisters of Charity. It was the first Catholic hospital in Manhattan. Survivors of disasters such as the sinking of the Titanic, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and September 11th were treated at St. Vincent’s after it moved to its eventual site on 7th Avenue in 1856. A devastating new plague, HIV/AIDS, would profoundly affect the institution and the surrounding neighborhood from the 1980s onwards as the hospital became a center for AIDS research and treatment. By the time St. Vincent’s closed its doors on April 30, 2010, 3,500 employees had lost their jobs. The last Catholic hospital in Manhattan was replaced by a luxury condo development.”

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes
Kathleen Chalfant, Alvin Keith, Justin Genna, Kelly McAndrew. Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

The conflict of ideals and faith play a central role in this dissection and autopsy, guided through by the awe-inspiring Kathleen Chalfant (Off-Broadway’s Wit, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday) portraying Saint Elizabeth Seton, the first American born Saint. She was a woman not of her time, who found the passion and the direction inside to create, in a drafty old brownstone, an institution that would grow to become this beacon of hope for so many. Inspired by the thousands of caretakers and patients of St. Vincent’s Hospital, all portrayed by a devoted crew made of  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, Cram attempts with a soulful conviction to unearth the hospital that many called “the soul of our city”. Drawing forth an army of ghosts from underneath the brand new condos that sit on that very same lot, she brings the discouraging and tragic history to life, as if resurrecting its bleeding still heart like Lazarus on a hospital bed.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

There is a powerful core inside this exploration, and through the succession of nine ceremonial prayers, the elements of all that was lost and gained dance through the convoluted tale with love and compassion, coaxed forward by choreographer Edisa Weeks and composer Serge Ossorguine. It’s hard to find fault in the construct, as the mission is clearly greater than the confines of a standardized play. Its pulse is found and lost within moments of each other though, surprising us with connection, and then dissipating the ties into the night air. The funny moments, joyfully embraced by the young college students that I was surrounded by, were a gift, but hard to take in at times for this particular audience member. All that beauty that was lost felt far too close, personal, and central, as if I could almost hear them fluttering around my head. The recounting of all the unbearable things that happened over and over again on Spellman 7, told with heartbreaking honesty by the wonderfully engaging Ken Barnett (CSC’s Cradle Will Rock) and two nurses from numerous eras, played to perfection by Kelly McAndrew (ATC’s Good Television) and Natalie Woolams-Torres (Public’sTiny Beautiful Things), strikes hard filling my eyes with tears. The two caretakers unearth the complications of history and religion with fearless soul, giving us layers that I wasn’t aware of, while sitting alongside Barnett’s steadfast commitment to staying alive.  His searching survivalist soul finds love in the arms of the ever-so-appealing rollerskate-dancing AIDS patient, dynamically played by Justin Genna (Summer Rep’s The Little Dog Laughed). Their entanglement gives the piece a centralized heart, helping us all to find our roots within the earth below. “1-2-3 Jump” is the group dancing anthem for holding onto the optimism found within the gravity of heaven as the bells chime for the lost hospital and those that died in its rooms and hallways. 

As directed with fluctuating intensity by Daniella Topol (Rattlestick’s Ironbound) under a flock of recorded butterfly stories, the lovely and warm Chalfant guides us gently and compassionately through the hospital’s sorted and complicated history. She is gifted with a tender heart and soulful delivery, alongside our other guardian, the 18th-Century hairdresser and philanthropist Pierre Toussaint, portrayed with conviction by Alvin Keith (Broadway’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) who wonders if he should have in fact, burned it all down in retaliation (not the hospital, but the church who turned him away after taking his donation). He questions his own action of being quiet when he should have yelled, and that the “wrong thing could have been the right thing” at the time. A compelling idea to examine as the threads of death abound in the space designed by Carolyn Mraz, with costumes by Ari Fulton, lighting by Stacey Derosier, and sound by Brian Hickey and Sinan Zafar. Novenas tries to sound the same alarm, quietly suggesting that Silence does in fact equal Death, and the community and big money let this important institution flatline because of neglect and mismanagement. The piece never fully finds its full formulation, even as we parade, candle in hand, down the street, past the condos to the new AIDS Memorial. The attempt to connect to our pain and loss under those white modern bands didn’t register (maybe because of the distractions of the big city) but Novenas does, in the confines of the second floor sanctuary, locate its heartbeat and its passion for life and love.

So serve me up one whiskey neat, or three, and let me drink to those lost to AIDS, Cholera, and all in between. They fly like butterflies above us. We remember you and mourn the institution that was once the caring soul of our city.

Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes
Kathleen Chalfant. Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Off Broadway

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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