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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Line
Public Theater and YouTube    Summer 2020

New York's Public Theater is outside our usual remit, but by offering a new and original work online it attracts our attention.

The Line fits into the new genre of Zoom theatre, with actors in their own homes acting for computer cameras. It is more effective than most because the script is a string of intercut monologues, so there is not the obstacle of one screen trying to talk to another.

It is also verbatim theatre, drawn by writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from interviews with front-line health workers in New York City in the first months of 2020.

We meet, sitting in their separate homes, an ambulance driver, a paramedic, an emergency room doctor, an intern, a couple of nurses, and a care home director.

All start by giving a sense of the stress and frantic nature of their 'ordinary' days while touchingly communicating their commitment and the personal satisfaction they get from doing their jobs well.

And then Covid hits, and New York City turns to hell. A system that was getting by through the dedication of people like these is overwhelmed.

Hospitals must turn away patients because they have no beds. Protocols, systems and rules go out the window. In the absence of respirators and other equipment substitutes are borrowed, invented or jerry-rigged on the spot. Emergency rooms are turned into triage stations in which doctors and nurses must decide who is worth trying to save.

As we cut back and forth among the speakers, individual anecdotes stand out. An EMT fights through CPR to bring a patient back to life in his ambulance, only to have him die again when the hospital has no room for him. A nurse tries to keep track of a beloved uncle dying in one hospital while working to save others in another.

A former battlefield medic starts getting flashbacks. A nurse who had previously studied acting finds his Method training helps him manage his emotions. A cancer ward nurse, proud of the way they have always bent the rules to allow families access to their dying loved ones, agonises over having to forbid any access to Covid patients.

The common thread to the monologues is unwavering dedication and anguish at not being able to do what they want to do save and help people.

As directed by Jessica Blank, the seven performers - Santano Fontana, Arjun Gupta, John Ortiz, Alison Pill, Nicholas Pinnock, Jamey Sheridan and Lorraine Toussaint create instant and fully rounded characterisations that never break the illusion or lapse into types.

At just over an hour, the play produces its powerful emotional effect without having to strain to maintain it too long. In the mode of the best docudrama, The Line gives human faces to a story that we might know only through news reports or statistics

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Line 2020