The performance takes place in the Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre which is a black box theater with seats arranged on two sides. The square space is black as is the flooring, but while panels that open as doors cover the two walls of the stage. In Nicholas Kostner’s design, no scenery is used except for three wooden deck chairs which are brought out occasionally. The mellow preshow music sounds like Mozart or Haydn and sets the sober tone. The lighting by Jeannette Oí-Suk Yew and Masha Tsimring on the black and white set is hard on the eyes, while their video design is mostly distracting. Although a great deal of time passes, the characters never change their clothing in Baille Younkman’s basic costume design which includes some fanciful outfits.
The opening resembles that of Mann’s novel: a horse and buggy deliver a visitor to a tuberculosis sanitarium on a mountain top overlooking a valley, suggesting that the unspecified time is 100 years ago, prior to W.W. I. Immediately, the doctor discovers that the newcomer has T.B. and needs weeks of rest. This One Who Has Come from the City to Heal meets and interacts with the other denizens, including a healer, a mother of a degenerate child, one who is building a space ship, and one who composes sounds and visions, as well as having the ability to see those who have passed away.
Time passes. A pilot who answers to the name of Amelia crashes into one of the gables and remains for a rest cure but is later discovered to be ill. Seven years go by in this manner (just as in The Magic Mountain) while the denizens of the unnamed sanitarium discuss mystical ideas, life and death. Ultimately, several are transfigured and become saints, the one who is building a spaceship completes the machine, and all the survivors except for the Doctor fly off into space to have an encounter with The One Who is the Great Mass.
According to its mission statement, “Buran Theatre is an NYC-based ensemble of disparate multidisciplinary and intergenerational artists who joyfully and anarchically reconfigure narrative, form, genre, gender and design to develop and present new performance works.” The operative word in T.B. Sheets is gender as the characters are all given gender-free names such as “The One Who is the Parent of the Child,” “The One Who is an Orderly,” “The One Who Is Dying,” etc., so that it is not possible to know which gender any of the characters identify with.
However, as gender is not mentioned by the author at all at any time during the play, the use of the gender-free names would appear to be a rather meaningless conceit on the part of the author and only serves to obscure the theme of the play and has little or nothing to do with gender. Written in a stilted, archaic language like a bad translation from the German, a good deal of the play is completely unintelligible or fantastical. The One Who Builds a Spaceship speaks in a made-up language which is either a combination of English and German or gibberish which does not help the proceedings. Rather than sound profound or meaningful, the metaphysical talk is both hollow and shallow. The confusion of genders makes the friendships and couplings obscure – although this is obviously intentional. Co-directed by Lisa Nevada and author Burnett, the production is so stylized and hallucinatory that the actors seem like puppets subservient to the playwright and directors’ vision. This is the avant-garde as self-indulgence.
The cast of ten are all on the same wavelength though they tend to leave the audience out. The casting of Caucasian, Asian, African and Caribbean actors resembles the international clientele of the source material, The Magic Mountain, though the script does not allow for the same intellectual depth with which Mann endowed his characters. Though most of the performers are on stage throughout, several are allowed to develop over the course of time, others creating definite and strong characters, while still others have roles and functions that are too amorphous to place.
Moira Stone as The One Who Has Come from the City to Heal is the main character (like Mann’s Hans Castorp) and changes over the course of the seven-year stay. Colleen O’Neill is amusing – and amused – as The One Who Is Amelia, presumably suggested by aviator Amelia Earhart. Maybe Burke as a patient who dies and comes back as a ghost has obvious dance training, continually spinning around on stage. As The One Who is the Doctor, Daniel Allen Nelson is extremely cool and unemotional. Lori Elizabeth Parquet has a soft, gentle tone (and presumably touch) as The One Who Is a Healer but Sicker than the Rest.
The program which is not distributed until after the performance explains that for many years it was believed that tuberculosis could be treated by change of climate, sleeping outside, smoking cigarettes, and dancing. There is a historical drama to be written on the subject of the early T.B. sanitariums and their regimen, but this mostly pretentious performance piece is not it.
T.B. Sheets (through May 27, 2017)
Part of The Tank’s Flint & Tinder Series
A.R.T./New York Theatres, 501 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thetanknyc.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes including one five minute pause