Monday, January 21, 2008

Theatre: Drop Me In The Water

The Breach by by Catherine Filloux, Tarell Alvin McCraney & Joe Sutton, Directed by David Esbjornson, Seattle REP, through February 9, 2008

So as a playgoer, I'm a bit of a booster. If the play itself isn't up to snuff, praise the actors. If neither are up to the task, say something nice about the set design. If all else fails, praise the theater for taking a chance, even if it doesn't work.

But sometimes it all falls apart, and The Breach does exactly that. Three weak one-acts crosscut into a theatrical collage on the aftermath of Katrina. And collage is the correct word - a mosaic takes the pieces and makes a greater picture out of them, while a collage retains all the big identifiable chunks and challenges you to see if there is any connection.

And there isn't much, other than the hurricane and the failures that followed it. Three plays with very different styles, and, taken apart, are very slender threads. Addition does not make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Piece one is Mac the wheelchair-bound bartender, who escapes his flooded house but is plagued by a personification of water, who is two parts legend and two parts DTs. I never personified Katrina as anything else than a savage bully of nature, so re-branding the storm as a witty, lovely, athletic black woman with a British accent (on a mike and amplified) just loses me. And why are delusions always more witty and intelligent than their creators? It is the best of the group, yet it is struggling against its own pretensions.

Piece two is a New York writer going South to chase down rumors that the levees were blown up on purpose, a story prevalent amongst a black community that for the most part was ignored and savaged by the storm. Not that reality spared his community much, but this snippet concentrates on the Internet-borne rumor that followed. Yet most of the story seems to be about the writer being unable to explain clearly who he was and what he wanted. Not a good sign when the audience knows the "right" answer from the outset.

Piece three actually got me irritated. Three survivors trapped on the roof of their flooded home - Grandfather, grandson, and seven-year old granddaughter. The older version of the granddaughter (dressed in the "military fleece poncho" look that will be popular in 2035) narrates. The storm is pretty much secondary - this is three people trapped together and the emotions that fly. Worse yet, this is the third play in the row where we have the "sacrificial gay character" - who is punished for his sexuality. Is this a theme for the season? Will there be a gay character in "Imaginary Invalid" who catches a bullet in act one?

The actors were, well, not bad, for the most part because I know them from earlier productions - veterans of Birdie Blue, Gem of the Ocean, and The Blue Door are all here, reminding me they were better in the other plays. The stagecraft was tough - how do you flood a stage in a traditional theater (Initiman pulled it off with Metamorphosis, but that's theater in the round - we're all looking down). Pieces moved effectively on and off, but capturing the nature of bleakness after the flood is tough.

I guess what is frustrating is what was unsaid, or rather skimmed over in passing - a brushing touch and then on to other matters. Semi-addressed was the fact that Katrina was a disaster, but what happened next was even worse. That neglect and corruption laid the groundwork for what happened to New Orleans, Biloxi, and the Gulf Coast, and the fact that we don't seem to have learned anything. We succeeded in making government small enough to drown in a bathtub, and then were surprised when it was washed out to sea. Such that in the post-Katrina years, with brushfires and flooding in Chehalis, no one is really counting on the national government to ride to the rescue.

We need a good Katrina play. We don't have it yet.

More later,