Mouth to ear resuscitation

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The Surgeon
7:30pm & 9pm
April 26-28;
May 4-5, 10-12
$9 general; $5 teacher
The Overtime Theatre Co.
814 West Ave.

Some folks love to say that theater is a dying art form. Theater folks, especially, take a perverse pleasure in whining about this decline while wondering why they get diminishing returns for their endless productions of the same five plays and seven musicals that were big hits in New York in 1943. What passes for new and exciting is usually something that’s about seven years old and has the word Pulitzer or Tony attached to it — guaranteeing that it’s safe, sound, and utterly devoid of life. Why aren’t people coming back for more of the same? Why aren’t audiences excited?

Well, theater isn’t dead — it’s just hiding. The Overtime Theater’s production of John Poole’s The Surgeon may have found it — or at least a piece of it.

It’s hard to believe that a former mortuary would be the place to discover theater alive and kicking, but the leftover toe tags show the provenance of The Overtime Theater’s space, and Poole’s play resuscitates it with a few simple and durable ideas. Poole and the Overtime gang understand that the whole point of live theater is that it’s local and entertaining. The Surgeon is ostensibly a play about medicine and health care. It’s full of ruminations about the crossroads of the medical and legal professions and it explores the quackery of pseudo-science and alternative medicine.

But it’s also a quick-on-its-feet comedy full of Poole’s signature stylized language and fast-paced witty word-slinging. Local references abound, the audience is not allowed to hide in the darkness, and you get the feeling that this play is being created for you while you wait and not just warmed up in a theatrical microwave like a frozen cinnamon roll. The outstanding ensemble has a field day with the language and the physical comedy is brilliantly done.

For those looking for analogues, this play owes more to Moliere than to Shakespeare, but the crucial point is that these folks take full advantage of the serendipities of live performance and you get the feeling that this isn’t just a play for the ages, but a play for you and me, here and now. For fans of meta-theater, I should note that the church next door was conducting a healing service during the production I attended. You can’t invent that kind of serendipity, and it’s impossible to recreate it in a different place and time.

The Surgeon is, first and foremost, an exciting comedy. It clocks in at barely over an hour (with no commercial interruptions) and it trots along at a good clip. It’s got something funny for everyone, unless you have no sense of humor. Just as importantly, it’s a play that reminds us about the origins of theater: as a civic institution with a local audience, a place to show ideas to each other, a place to talk to each other about our world and our town and our lives. The Surgeon is entertaining and thought-provoking, and it should remind us that the way to keep this art form alive is to support the kind of theater that lets us engage in something of a dialogue.

I can’t wait to see what Poole and the Overtime Theater come up with next, because whatever it is, it’ll be freshly made for us and not some generic store-bought play — and that may be the best news to come out of an old mortuary in a long time. 

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