Brain fever in “Flu Season”
Psychiatric retreat. Boy and girl patients meet, fall in love. Doctor and nurse sort out their own romance. A touching story, in a Hallmark Channel sort of way.
Youngblood Theatre and guests, under Michael Cotey’s deft direction, told it in Hallmark fashion — with just enough satiric twist — in Act 1 of Will Eno’s The Flu Season Thursday evening. Eno’s loopy, elliptical dialogue points toward satire, too. Greg Flattery’s Doctor and Cheryl Roloff’s nurse drift off into expansive nostalgia when they’re supposed to minister to their patients. He’s dreamy, she’s ditzy, and they convey that in a style that would be very much at home on General Hospital. (By the way, Youngblood is staging the play in the long-vacant cafeteria of the former Columbia Hospital, now UWM’s Northwest Quadrant. More on that here.)
Tess Cinpinski and Jason Waszak play the patients on a more naturalistic level. Their romance becomes more and more convincing as their attraction seems to lure them from the confines of their wounded psyches.
It’s all a trick — Eno’s trick. He’s messing with us and messing with his characters, too.
Epilogue, one of his two alter egos in the play, tells us as much. Ken Williams, lurking stage right of the low platform where the hospital drama unfolds, interrupts, comments, revises. He speaks — in hard-boiled language — for the writer’s editorial function. That part of the authorial brain feels the Hallmark oozing through his initial impulse and tries to correct it. He engineers the play’s abrupt, cruel turns in Act 2, in a vain attempt to make it true. Williams plays Epilogue with world-weary bitterness from the start, because he knows what’s coming from the start. For him, The Flu Season is a memory play, a painful retelling of a frustrating artistic failure. Some comments he utters about life and the theater during Act 1 find their way into dialogue in Act 2. He starts to project his feelings about the play into his characters’ feelings about one another. Fascinating.
Andrew Edwin Voss lovingly pronounces Prologue’s flowery prose from just off the platform stage left. Prologue, quite sure that he has written something real about love, is in love with his play and his characters and blind to the flaws in his writing and ideas. Voss, something of a buffoon aesthete at first, becomes increasingly real in his rising panic and sinking despair as he sees his play go inexplicably awry. He has no idea that his other half will take a cleaver to his delicate flower of a play until he sees Act 2. And oh my god! Whence cometh those bizarre utterances? They sound as if someone else wrote them!
Eno, the puppetmaster of all of the above, was not content with a soap opera, or with a satire of a soap opera, and even with meta-theater about a failed stage soap opera. He takes his conceptual tour-de-force one more level by allowing Cinpinski’s character to take on three dimensions — compared with the medicos’ one and Waszak’s 2.5.
Terrible things happen in Act 2, but one final twist among Eno’s head-spinning conceits makes us laugh. It’s only a play. Gotcha.
The Cast: Man – Jason Waszak; Woman – Tess Cinpinski; Doctor – Greg Flattery; Nurse – Cheryl Roloff; Prologue – Andrew Edwin Voss; Epilogue – Ken Williams; Orderlies – Joanna H. Kerner, Mike Loranger.
Performance Info: Curtain time is 8 p.m. The Flu Season opens runs Thursday through Saturday (Mar. 1-3 and Mar. 8-10), Monday and Tuesday (Mar. 5-6 and Mar. 12-13), and Friday and Saturday (Mar. 16-17).