Reviewed by Holli Harms
Cusi Cram’s new play Novenas For A Lost Hospital at Rattlestick Theatre is a church, a happening, a town meeting, a history lesson, an epic poem, and a must-see by every New Yorker and especially by everyone who lives/lived in the West Village for whom the shadow of what was once St. Vincent’s Hospital loomed over us like a lighthouse, a beacon of hope.
St. Vincent’s, in Ms. Cram’s breathtaking new play, is the protagonist. The hospital, a hero to all who built her and worked in her, and died of the plagues that cost this city so many, cholera over 5,000, AIDS over 100,000. We celebrate their lives and their deaths and the dignity that the Sisters of Charity, under the leadership of Sister Elizabeth Ann Seton (she would later be canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church), who started the hospital in 1849 as a place for the poor to come and receive medical help, human comfort and decency.
The audience begins its journey in the courtyard of St. John’s in the Village with music and dance and chanting and words – the words of AIDS. We forget how awful it was here in the city in the ’80s when this thing, this monster of a plague, started to destroy lives and kill with no mercy, ravishing, devouring the bodies of its victims. Yes, there will be tears, but there will also be joy and hope and laughter creating instant fellowship taking us all back to the cradle of us when we moved together as one tribe.
The cast, lead by Ms. Kathleen Chalfant, is beyond superb. They are not so much acting before us as living out the precious moments of life and love and they are also our guides through the story of what was once a remarkable hospital. The first to take in those with cholera. The first to treat the victims of AIDS. Ms. Chalfant plays Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born to be canonized. To become a saint you have to have a miracle happen posthumously. Ms. Chalfant need not wait for that, she is already a saint of the theatre.
A novena is another word for prayer and the playwright has nine prayers for us. The final one a quiet request.
Cram takes all the historical information of the hospital, all this remarkable, all but forgotten, meticulously compiled by Dramaturg Guy Lancaster, and weaves it together with a story that becomes a layer cake of truth and magic an exciting inspiring experience.
Director Danielle Topol who has just been named Artistic Director of Rattlestick directs this evening and play with ease, grace, and tribal ritual bringing us all together. This play is a spiritual gathering where we hold hands and listen to one another rooted in community.
You will end the evening dancing and chanting through the intimate village streets over to the AIDS memorial on Sixth Avenue that sits directly across from what was once St Vincent’s Hospital now a multi-multi-million dollar luxury apartment complex complete with daily organic cleansing juice delivery, feng shui to rid your apartment of lingering unpleasantries and other outlandish amenities that spit in the face of Saint Elizabeth and the sisters and nurses, the poor and the sick, and the artists who lived in the Village and gave it its vibrancy, edge and passion.
Go see and be a part of Novenas.
Novenas for a Lost Hospital needs to be done every year less we forget what was once community.
Novenas For A Hospital written by Cusi Cram, directed by Danielle Topol
Starring Kathleen Chalfant, with Ken Barnett, Goussy Celestin, Leland Fowler, Justin Genna, Steven Jeltsch, Alvin Keith, Shayne Lebron-Acevedo, Kelly McAndrew, Noriko Omichi, Rafael Sánchez, Laura Vogels, and Natalie Woolams-Torres
Choreographer: Edisa Weeks, Set Designer: Carolyn Mraz, Costume Designer: Ari Fulton, Lighting Designer Stacey Derosier, Co-Sound Designers: Brian Hickey & Sinan Zafar, Composer: Serge Ossorguine, Props Designer: Rhys Alexander, Associate Director: Em Weinstein, Stage Manager: P. Tyler Britt, Production Manager: Jenny Snyder, Technical Director: Aaron Gonzalez, Dramaturg: Guy Lancaster
Check-in time is 7:00 at St John’s in the Village (218 W 11th St.). The show will finish at 9:30 by the New York AIDS Memorial.
Presented in partnership with Village Preservation, The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Community Center, NYC AIDS Memorial Board, NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, St. John’s in the Village, and Visual AIDS.
Previews: September 5–9, 11–16, 18 at 7pm
Opening: Thursday, September 19 at 7pm
Through October 13: Wednesday–Monday at 7pm; September 21, 28, October 4, 11 at 1pm
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, Manhattan)
$45–$60 ($20 student, $35 senior tix); rattlestick.org; 212-627-2556
Visit Rattlestick for more information.
Rattlestick is accessible via the 1, 2 and 3 trains (at 14 St. and Christopher St./Sheridan Square) and the A, B, C, D, E, F and M trains (at West 4th St.).