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Theatre in Review: (Not) Water (New Georges at 3LD Art & Technology Center)

Polly Lee, April Matthis. Photo: Marina McClure

In 2012, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, 3LD Art & Technology Center was flooded, a near-death experience for a company that had become a major player in the New York theatre scene. For this reason alone, it is an all-too-appropriate host for (Not) Water, a theatrical investigation into humanity's complex relationship with this essential substance in a world rapidly being reshaped by pollution and climate change. The topic is huge, and the execution; conceived by the playwright Sheila Callaghan and the director Daniella Topol, it is an often-arresting, sometimes irritating hodgepodge of scenes, spoofs, facts, meditations, and audience participation exercises; even when it threatens to evaporate like ocean mist, it deserves credit for tackling this enormous, confounding issue, and for finding so many inventive ways of doing so.

The first part of (Not) Water finds two theatrical collaborators, named Not Sheila and DT -- Warning: cutesy self-reflexive theatre ahead! -- busily trying to create a theatre piece on the topic of water. They experiment with a standup routine loaded with lousy puns ("You know what keeps a dock floating above water? Pier pressure."), abandoning it for an edgier opening, a harrowing monologue for a Hurricane Katrina survivor, sitting on her roof and watching dead bodies float by. Next, they vow to drag in every possible water-related myth -- Noah, the Lady in the Lake, etc. Other cast members and designers join in, producing an excruciatingly downbeat Irish scene and a weird, whimsical dialogue for two Norwegian fishermen -- the scene is in Norwegian, with English surtitles -- in a dinghy, declaring their love for each other while dousing themselves with ever-larger bottles of H2O. Cooler heads prevail, as someone sensibly points out that you can't indict the world for squandering one of its most precious natural resources while wasting gallons at each performance.

Callaghan has a faultless ear for theatrical buzzwords and artistic-process clich├ęs, which she uses mercilessly to lampoon the characters, even the one based on herself. ("I guess this should be, like, meaningful? In a way?") This is especially so in a brief sequence featuring Not Sheila and DT applying for a residency at a theatre company: "As a writer, I use conventional narrative structure as a starting point, and then allow absurd tinges, adventurous language, or fragmented temporal logic to intrude upon and/or converse with traditional forms. I am especially excited about the collaboration process, and I am most rewarded when I build my work with other like-minded artists." Doublespeak doesn't get better than that.

From time to time, an audience member is given a mic and a bit of text to read; these fact-filled nuggets -- about floods in India, a once-unthinkable snowfall in Baghdad, and the devastations of Hurricane Sandy -- form a stark contrast to the self-involved chatter of this troupe of professional hand-wringers. A musical number for a mop -- you read that right -- is interrupted by a furious DT. "It's a beautiful, relevant piece of theatre," Not Sheila says, defensively. "It's a f---ing mop," snaps DT. "It's singing. It's dripping."

Indeed, (Not) Water sends so many mixed signals that it's little wonder that a certain confusion sets in: Are we meant to identify with Not Sheila, DT, and the others in their sometimes wayward endeavor? Or are they simply fiddling while the world burns from an excess of carbon dioxide? Much of the time, this seems to be a play about moral and psychological paralysis, mankind's inability to come to grips with its own possible extinction.

And so it goes, with sequences that take deadly aim at our collective blindness followed by others that seem gimmicky and trivial. Rebecca Hart, portraying Susan Bernfield, artistic director of New Georges, gives a horrific account of her mother's death in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Just when we're struggling to digest these terrible events, there is a hokey "blackout" that forces the audience to be "evacuated" from the theatre; it is then divided into two groups to be sent off to experience different, simultaneous monologues. I was in the group assigned to the Crafty Cook, a fellow who, following a Sandy-style natural disaster, is holed up in the kitchen of the chic downtown restaurant where he is employed as a dishwasher. Not too mentally stable, and perhaps overly influenced by his time on a Native American reservation, he is busily trying to create a food substance that communicates the experience of pancakes and maple syrup without destroying natural resources. The scene is as creepy and unsettling as anyone could wish.

After that, everyone is brought back to the main theatre and invited to sit or lie (on rubber rafts) beneath an enormous sculpture consisting of plastic water bottles and edged with torn, ragged plastic bags. Although no one says so, it's a visually arresting evocation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a stretch of ocean so riddled with plastic junk that it barely functions. Our contemplations are aided by video images of water projected onto the sculpture, floor, and walls; a few minutes of this contemplation is haunting, but it goes on too long. Then a mic is passed around and we are invited to pick out of a jar and read a piece of paper on which an audience member has written his or her memory of water. (Everyone is invited to contribute these before the show begins.) Listening to these musings, I began to feel as if it were naptime in some kind of adult kindergarten.

Whatever its excesses, (Not) Water does not lack imagination or commitment. April Matthis is crisply amusing as Not Sheila, looking rather skeptical as she struggles to hold together her baggy monster of a performance piece. Polly Lee is the right mixture of cheerleader and tough-love-dealing parent as DT. Mike Shapiro is an eerie, insinuating presence as the Crafty Cook. Carmen M. Herlihy is an amusing wet blanket as another member of the design team. Topol keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, aided by the watery imagery created by video designer Cory Einbinder and the often lovely, melancholy music and sound design of Broken Chord. Ari Fulton's costumes and Barbara Samuels' lighting are both solid contributions.

In its weakest moments, (Not) Water stops being a play about ecological crisis, giving way to a far-less-compelling piece about artists struggling to say something about said crisis. Still, it is rarely dull, and it invites the audience to think, long and hard, about a planet that may be in the process of irreversible change. "People are gonna walk out of here prepared to change the world," says Not Sheila in a moment of elation. I dearly hope she's right about that. -- David Barbour

(28 June 2017)

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