Jesi Bender, Kinderkrankenhaus, Sagging Meniscus, 2021
Reviewed by William Lessard
"The world as a hospital" is a trope best known from One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, although its roots can be traced further back than Miloš Forman's 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey's 1962 novel. Harold Pinter's The Hothouse (1958), Kafka "A Country Doctor," (1918) and Chekov's "Ward No. 6" (1892) are three examples, which show the struggle against prescribed confinement is hardly something new. Foucault's Madness and Civilization (1961) fingers its deepest tendril at the end of the Middle Ages, when modern subjectivity first rose against "the secret powers of the world."
Jesi Bender's Kinderkrankenhaus updates the conflict for our post-human times. The kinder, of the title, double for all of us who have wondered if they are speaking to a living person on customer support, or whether, with all the data Facebook and Twitter have on them, their "self" could be automated tomorrow as a bot without anyone noticing.
The play opens with a farewell to received ontologies. A man and woman exit the large door of a hospital "in an unknown time and unknown geography." The husband reassures the wife "this is the right thing to do" for their child. The child's age and gender aren't specified, nor does the audience learn their human name. Like the rest of the patients, a new one is assigned upon entry.
Gnome, as the protagonist is now known, joins Cinder, Nix, Eros, Shadow, and Python. Their monikers pinned to grey gowns direct us to the play's true setting. Right from the title, which translates as "Children Suffering House," Bender makes clear the hospital is not the walls, the windows, the gates, the bars. It is that brick edifice of vowels and consonants, behind which the children sequester, apart from everyone else.
"Kinder crank in hows." That's what Gnome calls their prison. Later in Act 1, when GNOSIS appears on an overhead, Nix responds with equal parataxis. "Noses. No-sis. Know-sis." Bender's characters betray a Dada gesturing. Letters and sounds gather at the tongue, carrying the children toward a morphemic coherence, absurdist to the normative ear.
Dr. Schmetterling (from the German word for "butterfly') attends their displacement. Like Nurse Ratched, the chief antagonist of Cuckoo's Nest, his job is to preserve the health of the established order. The illness, as Schmetterling and his vectoralists diagnose it, is epistemic. The children need treatment on the semantic level. Their language creates a world feathered with poets. It should be one where noun stands next to verb, verb stands next to object—each word, each syllable, adding up to an actionable insight, or offering data-driven evidence of hyper-capitalist citizenship.
Act 1 dramatizes how, for the kinder, language will never be tagged, logged, evaluated by year-to-date performance. Kinderkrankenhaus' tension derives from Dr. Schmetterling's increasingly sadistic attempts to get them to conform. Unlike Nurse Ratched, he doesn't prescribe cold baths or shock treatment. He is a 21st-century creature. His cruelty is the cruelty of the metric, weaponized with the nomenclature of the credentialed professional.
When the protagonist is caught in a small cave that opened in the dormitory wall, Dr. Schmetterling delivers an extra lashing: "Be good, Gnome. Because of the severity of your case, you don't have many more opportunities to show me improvement." (Act 1, Scene 4)
Bender's characters spend the rest of the play opposing their treatment, regardless of consequence. At the beginning of Act 2, they luxuriate in numbers. They place them in rows, in rows, in rows, following a system only they understand. Their digits swell hallways that used to be filled by words. More than anything they've tried, arithmetic, as Kabbalistic totem, places them in a space their keepers can't touch. In a play with many difficult moments, it's a welcome revelation. But after the determinism of the preceding act, the audience is left wondering if it is enough to free them.
Bender answers any doubts with a resolution that is both threaded throughout the play and a genuine surprise. Managing such balance is a rare achievement, especially with material that could have wound up too cerebral or abstract. As experimental theater, Kinderkrankenhaus's two brief acts go deeper emotionally than Beckett and his Absurdist predecessors ever did. The first-time dramatist's characters are allegorical types, yet we care about them with an urgency that never seemed appropriate for Vladimir and Estragon. Bender sharpens ambiguity against a system that uses labels to monetize the demographics it favors, and discard the ones it does not.