Burkle Scores a 'Knock'-Out

Unnamed photo
Mariah S. Evarts

Location: Loeb Mainstage
DATES: April 7-April 15, 2006
DIRECTOR: Jess R. Burkle ’06
PRODUCER: John T. Drake ’06, Aileen K. Robinson ’08, and Tatiana K. Wilson ’09

Although the title of “Knock: or the Triumph of Medicine” may imply an endorsement of healthcare, this Loeb Mainstage show is anything but. In its portrayal of a sinister doctor who spreads disease instead of curing it, “Knock” explores the dark underbelly of modern medicine, suggesting that instead of being “scared to death,” the saying might be better as “scared to lasting sickness.”

The people of San Maurice are healthy until Dr. Knock comes to town. A character of dubious credentials who assumes the practice of a small town in France, Dr. Knock (pronounced “K-nock,” played by Julia C. Chan ’05) is driven by both materialistic and idealistic desires to his revolutionary “methods” of medicine. Dr. Knock plots to find disease in all his patients, and as he diagnoses them, they prove more and more pliable to his commands for modern treatment, with their eventual conversion to his methods suggesting a “triumph of medicine” that is fundamentally disturbing.

Directed by Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club veteran Jess R. Burkle ’06 and produced by John T. Drake ’06, Aileen K. Robinson ’08, and Tatiana K. Wilson ’09, “Knock” runs on the Mainstage through April 15. Although the show suffers from some overzealous acting, it succeeds in its ultimate goal: the creation of a drama that poses troubling philosophical questions, yet retains a playful and farcical atmosphere.

Chan—an alum whose acting skills have typically proven fantastic—gets a chance to showcase them in a new way as the villainous main character, Dr. Knock. Although Knock is typically a male role, the unconventional decision to cast Chan proves well-founded.

Her caustic wit and crisp British accent make Dr. Knock both sympathetic as the only voice of scientific logic in the small town of San Maurice and—once Dr. Knock successful converts the population of San Maurice to depend on his “treatments”—believable in his monstrosity as a megalomaniac authority figure who creates bedridden, paying patients out of healthy townspeople. Above all, she excels at that transition between disappointed young doctor and crazed dictator.

Jack E. Fishburn ’08 also delivers a reliably good performance as the original doctor in town, Dr. Parpalaid, who sells his practice to Dr. Knock. In his rumpled state, Parpalaid seems at first a conventional bumbling, foppish Old Boy, but comes to take on dramatic importance as a symbol of the traditional, pre-Knock way of life. Fishburn’s ability to command a scene works well for him here: his authoritative joviality makes him a convincingly comic, seemingly harmless persona at first, but allows him to also assume the role of a compelling dramatic character at the climax of the play.

As a whole, the actors who play the townspeople of San Maurice excel in their presentation of distinct personalities who all become increasingly receptive to the methods of Dr. Knock. Lillian Ritchie ’08 is especially noteworthy as Madame Parpalaid; although her role is limited, Ritchie demonstrates just the right combination of simpering and petulance for the role.

Simon J. Williams ’09 also proves himself a strong new talent to watch as Mr. Mosquet; he has a fine comic touch as a beleaguered pharmacist with a grudge against Parpalaid who eventually becomes Dr. Knock’s first disciple. Laurel T. Holland ’06 performs also well as the “Lady in Violet,” an ingenuous rich actress who is easily convinced of her need for Dr. Knock’s restorative talents. She brings a delightful flippancy and self-awareness to her role.

Although the intensity of the townspeople’s horrified reactions to Dr. Knock’s dire diagnoses provides a good sense of the contrast between Parpalaid’s informal treatment of “medicine” and Dr. Knock’s authoritative perspective on the discipline, sometimes the acting is so over-the-top that its frenzy removes the subtlety of the interaction. Albeit amusing, the polarization between Dr. Knock’s cold reserve and the townspeople’s frenzy at times prevents the personal, human element from coming through. Nonetheless, the performances are all very strong.

Burkle’s direction brings his trademark quirky yet sophisticated creativity to the show. His decision to have Chan play Dr. Knock is inventive, providing another way for this role, as a symbol of modernism and industrialization, to break with tradition. The intermission—what can only be termed a period of “decontamination”—is a masterstroke that wins the audience’s attention and amusement.

Although the music is minimalist, sound designer Rebecca R. Rojer ’09 employs it effectively, and when dramatic sound clips do enter the scene they contribute to the cinematic feel of the play. An especially good sound touch is the use of a harsh “knocking” noise to emphasize the slam of a door, illustrating the conflict of tradition and modernity as the physical borders between patients and the doctor’s office are established and broken down.

Costume designers Sabrina Chou ’09 and Olga I. Zhulina ’09 use similar minimalist methods to contribute to the general feel of sterility and conformity.

The lighting plays an increasingly complex role; at first, it only consists of the typical, harsh, white lights of a doctor’s office, but its intensity and scale increases to represent the truth-revealing sterility of Dr. Knock’s “medicine,” and the possibility of his power. Light designer Aidin E.W. Carey ’07 does a good job of making the lighting’s intensity manifest that power.

At first, the simplicity of the set just demonstrates Dr. Knock’s focus on modern hygiene and sterility. But after the intermission, when the play jumps to a scene several months after Dr. Knock’s arrival, the futuristic set design transforms the space of the Mainstage from the previous flat, low lines to a mass-scale laboratory. The increased complexity of the set dramatically adds to the feel of rapid modernization that pervades the play, and represents a truly impressive technical feat on the part of set designers Burkle and Grace C. Laubacher ‘09.

“Knock” raises questions on a far broader, deeper level than most Harvard shows achieve. Does illness exist before doctors say it does? (This is particularly appropriate for a French play, given that a similar controversy surrounded Pasteur’s “discovery” of the microbe in the nineteenth century.) To what extent do we let medicine govern our bodies more than is necessary? And it’s difficult to avoid allusions to Hitler in the stiffly crisp and completely insane figure of Dr. Knock and the mechanistic modernization he envisions in his “medicine,” exposing the issue of whether modern medicine is actually kind of scientific totalitarianism.

Ultimately, “Knock’s” treatment of these questions is discouraging. The show expresses a deep discomfort with its namesake’s “medicine,” suggesting that what may seem like a great “experiment” to better mankind through modernization is actually just the experiment of one power-hungry man. It leaves you questioning whether the “triumph” of medicine is really a victory for mankind, or something that will destroy mankind—maybe something for all those pre-meds to consider before taking Chem 17.

In raising these deep questions—while reflecting the comedy of the show’s insane foundation—“Knock” is a success.

—Staff writer Mary A. Brazelton can be reached at