Art, Life, and the Meaning of It All Up For Discussion – and Combat – in H2O at CATF

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Art, Life, and the Meaning of It All Up For Discussion – and Combat – in H2O at CATF

Diane Mair as Deborah

Posted July 10, 2013 on

There are plays, and Jane Martin’s H2O (a new play commissioned for the Contemporary American Theater Festival) is one, that the reviewer can hardly discuss objectively, because there is scarcely an objective viewpoint from which to examine it. In important part, it concerns the argument between faith and a view that would characterize itself as rationality. While there are philosophical justifications for each stance, neither of them can be fully proven using the tools of philosophy itself, and, in the absence of definitive demonstration, the proponents of each view tend to consider their opposite numbers emotionally and intellectually shallow. It is possible to write a play – say Freud’s Last Session – in which the standoff between these outlooks is marked by respect on both sides.

But that is not true to the dispute as it is generally lived. Culture War is more frequently the model. Generally modern rationalists think Evangelical Christians an emotionally stunted and irrational lot, and the Evangelicals regard rationalists as deficient in grace. Usually, the people at the extremes of these views tend to avoid each other, if only to keep the peace. But in this play, they (and hence we in the audience) are not given that space. Instead, their collision is profound and prolonged, and we have to watch and judge it at close hand, and cannot possibly avoid bringing our own points of view to bear. But I shall strive for neutrality in this discussion.

Jake (Alex Podulke), the rationalist here, is a rich celebrity actor who feels deeply what he considers the meaninglessness of life, perhaps from being traumatized (the script hints he was a soldier in our current wars). In the first scene, he tries, rather spectacularly, to kill himself and spends the rest of the play trying to wreck the life prolonged by the interruption of his attempt. It is one thing to despair in the face of what one thinks a meaningless universe, another thing to despair so excessively. In other words, if he is truly a rationalist, he is a rationalist at the mercy of irrational destructiveness.

Deborah, the Christian who disrupted the suicide attempt (Diane Mair), is an aspiring actress, trying to locate a way to accommodate her own very demanding and orderly principles with living and working in a theatrical ethos more accommodating to Jake’s principles and personality than to hers. And of course, just to make it more absorbing but unbearable for the audience, these two are deeply attracted to each other.

We know from the start that that attraction would have to overcome not only the eruptive kind of destructiveness Jake evinces almost as a matter of course, but the Deborah’s determination not to compromise in her allegiance to what she understands to be Christian principles. That allegiance would naturally be so threatened by a liaison with Jake that she would be almost obligated to nip it in the bud, i.e. destroy it. In short, their mutual attraction would have to navigate a minefield of destructiveness.

The play’s the thing – literally, specifically a production of Hamlet – in which their chances of coming together are tested. He is Hamlet, the H in H2O, and she is Ophelia, the O. Shakespeare’s Ophelia’s life runs out in H2O, water, and, as we learn, in Martin’s play, it is also water that finally threatens Jake/Hamlet’s life. And the final crisis is precipitated by a most Shakespearean device, a necklace, reminiscent of the fatal handkerchief in Othello.

Why Shakespeare? Well, Jake’s view is that, if there is any meaning in the universe at all, it is to be found in the Bard. He says: “But I recognize Shakespeare is a different deal. He knows something and out of this mysterious knowledge he makes poetry that kills. So I thought I would attach my meaningless self to his meaningful self and see if it worked like a transfusion.” And Deborah sees in Shakespeare a bit of the secular world that is somehow safe enough for her because he “transcends man while showing what man could be,” and even amounts to “an argument for the existence of God.”

Putting on Hamlet, then, is the characters’ joint quest for transcendence. Whether one agrees with either character’s assessment of the playwright as some kind of bridge to meaning, it is certainly believable dramatically that the characters think him so.

And incidentally, I have never, absolutely never, come across as trenchant an analysis of the dramatic problems with Hamlet as playwright Martin puts in Jake’s mouth.

I will not reveal how this combat of destructiveness with desire plays out, nor which of the characters seems to have the better of the metaphysical argument by the final fadeout. But I will say that H2O is a knockout. There is a richness to it that should leave you sorting it through long after the curtain calls.

And of course there is the acting. Mair’s portrayal of Deborah is magnetic. She is not dazzlingly pretty, but her eyes and her voice make you want to look at her all the time. The voice in particular, with its patient, thoughtful, and possibly mad tone of certainty, draws you in. You may not like or approve of this character, but you will be looking at her. Podulsky is a more than adequate foil for Mair, although the script gives him less original material to show us. (We’ve all seen nihilistic war veterans with explosive tempers before. But Poduslky does this stock character really well.)

And then there’s the tech side. I myself am not much versed in tech matters, but I debriefed about this show with a friend who teaches lighting design at the university level. He regarded the lighting as innovative and gutsy. He also said that it was forced to be, because this stage, known as CCA 112 and probably the least advanced of the three that Shepherd University makes available to the Festival, was built with inadequate amperage. Necessity, however, having proved the mother of invention, the solutions lighting designer John Abrosone came up with (involving, I think, unconventionally low-powered sources that required actors to hit their marks quite precisely) left my friend tremendously impressed. All I know is, the lighting looked good.

For my money, H2O is the standout of a very competitive field of plays in this season of the Contemporary American Theater Festival. If you’re only seeing one of the plays, this is the one to see. It will leave you dealing not only with your feelings about the characters, but also reconsidering art, life, and The Meaning of It All.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo

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