Carry On, Doctor

Bringing the Fishermen Home will send all but the iron-minded into nightmare therapy.

Where will James Levin strike next? The Cleveland Public Theater artistic director's latest shrine to the cutting edge is Bringing the Fishermen Home, a medical horror show that is described in the brochure as "a savage comedy that examines those who examine us."

Set designer Oliver Sshngen's wondrous theater of pain transcends more utilitarian needs in favor of a creepy Charles Addams majesty, replete with walls that suggest human membranes and diseased chairs decorated with oozing wounds. Tattered curtains surround hellish caverns, and an eternal staircase leads the audience to a satanic altar for sadistic forms of surgery.

If you are willing to take this fearsome journey, be forewarned: Dine lightly; have at hand a supply of Valium and a sturdy theater companion to guide you back down the staircase and out of the theater. After two acts of playwright Deb Margolin's constant hysteria, you'll need all the help you can get.

Margolin is a high-strung New York performance artist and playwright. After having a tumor removed, she concocted a theater piece to lacerate the medical profession with the ferocity of a Puritan witch hunter. Encouraged by director Randy Rollison, she has cobbled a masochistic orgy of pain and frustration, redolent of the worst excesses of A Clockwork Orange and Ken Russell's 1970s cinematic exercises in surrealistic grotesquerie.

Dr. Julia Sand, a professor of Freudian psychology, takes a day off from her rarefied lifestyle to have a tumor in her sinuses examined. Before the audience can polish off that first bottle of Snapple, she is caught in a world of Kafkaesque torments, doing Marx brothers routines with featherbrained receptionists over doctors who don't show up. When they do, they turn out to be tin gods, and when the play culminates in Sand's surgery, her Norse god of a doctor turns into a lecherous, incompetent Dr. Quackenbush (See Groucho Marx in A Day at the Races.)

At this point, the production morphs into a fantasy sequence worthy of Fellini--with all forms of surgical malpractice and sexual symbolism, mutilating the body, destroying the soul, and ultimately degrading the patient/victim by displaying her bare breast to a mortified audience.

The indomitable supporting cast is headed by the conflicted doctor, played by David P. Thomas, a tortured, golden-haired Viking torn between compassion and ennui. Meanwhile, the other doctors toss off smutty jokes in the coffee room and surreptitiously screw the nurses. A helpless, victimized old man, played forlornly by Daniel Philip Ensel, sits endlessly in the waiting room. Michelle Tomko's callow secretary indifferently cuts off calls from desperate patients and switches them to Muzak. Every now and then a siren sounds, adding to the general sense of panic. These elements may be veiled nods to M*A*S*H, the black comedies of Joe Orton, and decades of off-Broadway basement plays chronicling mouthy women being eviscerated by male chauvinists.

As the ultra-victim, Sarah Morton has upped her ante from local playwright extraordinaire to finely honed thoroughbred martyr. With a Mary Astor Maltese Falcon hairdo, Hepburn bone structure, unerring comic timing, and burning intensity, she rescues a problematic script.

Randy Rollison directs with the ferocity of a poltergeist. Those who aren't knocked unconscious by a piece of flying angst will come out of this experience truly understanding the meaning of the term "theater of cruelty."


Bringing the Fishermen Home, through April 10 at Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727.

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