Fifteen minutes before showtime outside the tiny Old City Art House venue at the far east end of Vine Street, it felt like Lone Brick Theatre Company’s Fringe offering, The Clinic, had already started—but all we were doing was sitting in two rows of chairs on the old brick sidewalk.
Appropriating the private body
Lone Brick is Widener University’s resident theater company, and The Clinic, its latest premiere and fourth Fringe fest offering since 2015, was written by Rebecca Gomezrueda in collaboration with the company. The immersive and claustrophobic performance followed Emily (Brynne Maddrey) and Fritz (Luis José Aguilar), apparently unwilling but resigned patients waiting for the increasingly unsettling staff at a medical clinic to process their arrival for some sort of anatomical donation.
According to Lone Brick, the 45-minute play’s core question is “what happens when a society appropriates the private body for the public good?” Especially with laws eroding reproductive healthcare around the country, it’s a worthy question (though of course, people with uteruses are not being held hostage for any genuine notion of public good).
The audience, invited into packed, snaking rows of chairs throughout most of the space, could have been patients at any backed-up medical clinic. Emily (an 18-year-old aspiring photographer) and Fritz (a middle-school teacher reading—wait for it—Waiting for Godot) don’t seem to know what they’re about to donate, and an ensemble of five clinical staffers who rotate mercilessly in and out of the audience each bring their own brand of sinister, wholly unhelpful solicitousness.
Before the performance, the artists distributed tiny personal radios with earbuds, so that a disembodied male voice orchestrating the clinic workers was layered over the visible action. The setting was nothing more than the waiting-room audience and a desk with a laptop and one of those bells you fruitlessly ding at empty counters. My favorite moment may have been when Fritz becomes frustrated after ringing the bell to no effect, and the nurse promising to help merely rings the bell herself.
Is this real life?
The whole thing was no less absurd than my most recent medical sojourn. My primary referred me to a specialist who ordered an MRI (which my insurance company attempted to deny), and then sent me to another specialist. At that specialist’s office, I filled out a sheaf of paperwork from the receptionist that a nurse waved away as unnecessary 20 minutes later (while taking my blood pressure and telling me that going to church was the key to forgiving abusers). Then on to another consulting room, with an ingratiating, useless intern and then an orthopedist who barely touched me, recommended surgery, and referred me right back to the other specialist. (So far, this has cost me more than $500.)
Under director Robert A. Reutter, the committed ensemble gave well-defined performances you’d recognize at any large medical practice, from a nurse who’s as peppy as she is intrusive and unhelpful (Erica Sprague) to a doctor who calmly makes you feel as if the most destructive course of action is, in fact, your responsibility (Brennon Conner).
The Clinic would be a weird, relevant, and expertly unnerving experience for almost anyone who’s tried to access healthcare in America, or wondered who’s asking us to give something up, and why.
What, When, Where
The Clinic. By Rebecca Gomezrueda and Lone Brick Theatre Company. Directed by Robert A. Reutter. September 8, 2019 at Old City Art House, 144 Vine Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.