by Nita Congress · August 17, 2015
John Bixler, Jacob Sharf, Jed Alevizos | Jessie Dobrzynski
Google Phineas Gage. Among the first half-dozen hits, you’ll see him described as “history's most famous brain-injury survivor” (Smithsonian Magazine), “one of the most famous cases of traumatic brain injury” (Psychology.about.com), and—my favorite—“ one of the superstars of American anatomy, a firmament twinkling with the likes of Chang and Eng…” (RoadsideAmerica.com). Certainly, as a recent Slate article by Sam Kean states, his was “the most famous accident in medical history.”
On September 13, 1848, an accidental explosion caused his iron tamping rod to pass through the skull of twenty-five-year-old railroad foreman Phineas Gage. Amazingly, he lived to tell the tale; in fact, he was conscious to tell the attending doctor a half hour later, “Here is business enough for you.”
To Gage aficionados, it is pure catnip to have a FringeNYC play that precedes Gage’s name with “The Curious Case of,” thereby evoking a delicious penny-dreadful aura. And Split Knuckle Theatre does not disappoint. The collaborative ensemble presents a lighthearted “historical re-enactment” of his story that is a shaggy-dog tale encompassing—well, pretty much everything this side of the moon and beyond. The one-hour piece is chock full of silly songs, loopy characters, improbable scenarios, purple prose—and period commercials.
The trio of actors—Jason Bohon, John Egan, and Greg Webster—gleefully bring to life a wild assortment of characters, accompanied by composer/one-man band Andrew Lynch, whose clever songs are performed with great gusto and harmony. Lynch’s Edison Electric ads also help cover scene changes and add to the general fun. Director Vince Cardinal uses the small space brilliantly, creating havoc, mayhem, and mystery with a rolling curtained frame and a trunk of wondrous props.
And, most intriguingly, the whimsical tale told here is perhaps not so far removed in veracity from the interpretations more austere, more credentialed tellers have propounded. Little is really known, and much is conjectured, about Phineas Gage. And the Slate article notes of some Gage neuroscience researchers that they “found what they were looking for.” Well, Split Knuckle Theatre was looking for fun, and they have found it and share it with delight.