Friday, July 18, 2008

"Can I Help You?" Backstage Review

Can I Help You?

July 18, 2008

(photo by Jared Slater)

By Christopher Murray

"Alphonse, you are going to feel a big needle." Nine words blandly spoken but likely to strike terror in the heart of poor Alphonse — and a typical moment in the experimental collaborative Exploding Moment's new work.

Can I Help You? takes as its source material footage from an unnamed medical reality television program that focuses on patients admitted to a trauma center after various car accidents and mishaps. Five actors — Shea Elmore, Johnny Lops, Sharla Meese, Katherine Sullivan, and Katherine Wessling — painstakingly directed by Catharine Dill, re-enact different snippets of footage in a deliberately deconstructed manner. A transcriber upstage sits keying in the shoots, ostensibly for editing purposes, while varying perspectives are presented in the foreground.

Sometimes the actors gather around and meticulously pantomime a procedure in an operating theatre; additional sequences mimic medical personnel narrating surgeries or commenting on a patient's prognosis. Yet other moments are more clearly theatrical expressions, as when actors playing a doctor and patient engage in a pas de deux of pain to the "music" of a newly admitted patient crying out, or when closed-circuit video shows sides of meat being poked to replicate the often graphic shots of operations shown on television.

This postmodern presentation of the cable-ubiquitous images of real-life distress is often captivating in its technical sophistication, but the work's greater purpose is to reveal often unintentionally ironic shifts in perspective and purpose, in this case among medical staff, patients, and videographers.

The subject matter couldn't be more dramatic or, oddly enough, banal. Life and death moments alternate with the snide, self-protective sang-froid of nurses in cutesy scrubs and the often callous utilitarianism of a TV crew performing a surgery of its own to get the footage needed for a program.

The iris of the piece keeps opening wider, however, with increasing and disturbing poignancy as it reveals more of the backstory of some patients, particularly one Lisa Campbell, played with devastating bovine candor by Meese. Hospitalized after a car accident that might be concealing another, more sinister trauma, Lisa is drunk and belligerent when first admitted, howling in pain, then coy and self-congratulating days later as she prepares to be released back to the stresses of single motherhood and intones, at a cameraman's suggestion, "I will never drink alcohol again."

Such complicated albeit incomplete stories rely on the viewer to connect the dots and make interpretations and elevates Can I Help You? from an obsessively detailed theatrical experiment into a moving short story in which the audience is seduced into the role and responsibility of narrator.

Presented by Exploding Moment at the Bushwick Starr, 207A Starr St., Brooklyn, NYC. July 17-26. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or (866) 86118-4111 or

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