L&S America Online   Subscribe
Home Lighting Sound AmericaIndustry NewsLSA DirectoryEventsContacts

-Today's News

-Last 7 Days

-Business News + Industry Support

-People News

-Product News

-Theatre in Review

-Subscribe to News

-Subscribe to LSA Mag

-News Archive

-Media Kit

-A Theatre Project Book

-PLASA Events

Theatre in Review: The Watering Hole (Signature Theatre)

Photo: Lia Chang

This is the summer of walk-through theatre. Since many people remain jumpy about sitting in crowded rooms for a couple of hours, certain companies have found workarounds by creating themed environments into which a few audience members are injected at intervals, ensuring social distancing. The recent A Dozen Dreams unfolded in a series of rooms inside a disused retail space in the downtown shopping mall Brookfield Place. Currently, one can visit the Meatpacking District to partake of The Seven Deadly Sins, presented in a series of storefronts. As a gateway between the online presentations of the last sixteen months and the honest-to-God productions to come, it's a strategy.

The Watering Hole is staged all over the Signature Theatre complex on 42nd Street. Audience members are guided through the lobby, down various hallways, and into all three theatres plus rehearsal spaces and dressing rooms, taking in installations connected by the use of water imagery. The entire enterprise is overflowing with goodwill; the texts heard on the sound system speak of healing, celebration, and kindness. The feeling of charity is interactive: One is invited to fill out postcards for incarcerated criminals and to write, on triangular pieces of paper, a list of things that make one feel safe; the latter are pinned to a sailboat for others to read.

It's impossible to underestimate the beneficence behind The Watering Hole, which has been conceived by Lynn Nottage, Miranda Haymon, and a small legion of actors, writers, and designers. Designed to give pandemic-weary audiences a psychological oasis and a spiritual tune-up, it has its striking moments. A piece titled "Freequency" features some gorgeously colored large-scale projections, by Stefania Bulbarella, spread across the canvas covering the audience seating in the Irene Diamond Theatre. "Spray Cap," in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, features a lively monologue, spoken by Liza Colón-Zayas, urging everyone to get back on the streets; it has the true tang of New York City talk. Lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker provides an object lesson into how transform the mood of the room by shifting between warm- and cold-white looks.

But these are not unalloyed pleasures: "Freequency" is dominated by a run-on monologue, focused on the efficacious properties of creativity, that is so vaporous it all but floats away. ("In this theatrical body we solve problems and awaken intuition we raise positive energy and connect to the sources we balance interpersonal relationships wipe out all negativity inside us release fear and guilt raise awareness transform.") During "Spray Cap," the audience sits on benches staring at an enormous fire hydrant expelling haze -- a moment that, I submit, would not be out of place in a Christopher Guest film about the Off-Broadway theatre. Other vignettes try to engage us with so-called playful activities: Our guide, ushering my group of four into a hallway filled with pulsing lights, urged us to indulge in dance breaks or joyfully toss around one of several beach balls on offer; she found no takers. In the weirdest bit, one is put in a dressing room and urged to jump around on a foot piano -- like in the film Big -- while a TV blares lyrics saying, "We just want to celebrate 'cause everything could be so great," and "You me us we." At moments like these, The Watering Hole feels like a product of the Children's Television Workshop.

In the most successful piece "Wings and Rings," designers Emmie Finckel and Riccardo Hernandez transform the Romulus Linney Theatre into a faux swimming pool; projected on one wall and the ceiling is footage of the actor/playwright Ryan J. Haddad, who has cerebral palsy, at a real pool; on the soundtrack we hear an affecting meditation on his physical limitations, his early swimming lessons, and his place in his extended family. It offers a total immersion into this thoughtful writer's singular point of view. But, aside from the liquid metaphor, how does "Wings and Rings" fit into the overall scheme of The Watering Hole? Is there an overall scheme to The Watering Hole? For a long time, I thought not, in part because I experienced it slightly out of order. A sort of introductory piece, "Pre-Industrial," was pre-empted by a technical malfunction, so I didn't hear it until I was leaving the theatre. In it, several of the project's creative artists talk about the ancestors who have shaped them. Where so much of The Watering Hole consists of vaguely articulated uplift, this sequence (like Haddad's) crackles with specificity. Particularly gripping are costume designer Montana Levi Blanco reminiscing about his family's powerful matriarchy, Nottage recalling the years her grandparents lived in the Signature's neighborhood (then known as the Tenderloin), and Finckel, a self-described half-Asian transgender person, discussing a distant relative who was a prominent French stage actress of the nineteenth century. (I'm still avid to know the vedette's name.) I could have listened to them all night.

But, during this captivating passage, the penny dropped, suddenly revealing the oddly insular nature of The Watering Hole. Following these months of upheaval -- deaths, economic distress, racial reckonings, near revolution, and so much more -- these gifted folks present themselves as surprisingly tongue-tied about the state of a profoundly changed world. Most of the time, the words and gestures that make up this project are surprisingly vague. And when the talk turns specific, most of what they have to say is about...themselves. Well, it's been a hard time for us all; I assume that their collective gaze will soon turn outward again. Better days are coming. --David Barbour

(2 July 2021)

E-mail this story to a friendE-mail this story to a friend

LSA Goes Digital - Check It Out!

  Follow us on Twitter  Follow us on Facebook