BWW Reviews: Good Theater's UNDERWATER GUY Lifts Performance Art to the Poetic
Portland's Good Theater closed its season with a highly original and poetic premiere of Stephen Underwood's multi-media performance piece, Underwater Guy. Underwood's play uses video, music, lights, scenery, and a single actor/narrator to recount the protagonist's lifelong obsession with diving, underwater exploration and photography. Part documentary, part dramatic monologue with movement, the rapid shifts in the modes of communication prove stimulating, sometimes surprising, but always engaging. For in Underwood's play, water is more than a habitat or a passion; it is a metaphor for his life's journey, and as such, the piece takes on a deeper significance and resonance.
The monologue Underwood delivers begins with disarming simplicity, with a self- deprecating wit and a kind of "show and tell", but quickly, the actor-playwright draws the audience into the tale with his gift for words - tripping, alliterative lines and images that mirror the water's flux, as well as an uncanny ear for character and dialogue. He weaves transformative episodes from his past into the text as "watermarks" - his mother's death, his father's remarriage and encouragement to embrace diving, his struggle with and ultimate triumph in affirming his gay identity, and the transcendent joy he has found in nature and water adventure. These stories anchor the arc of the performance and grant it texture and depth. (One small quibble in a piece so otherwise beautifully written might be that the documentary finish - (however sobering the lake warden's last words) - seems rather to cry out for a more memorable Underwood poetic line.)
While words become the substance of Underwood's story, it is their marriage to the visuals that keeps the viewer engaged. Underwood's photography is lyrical and laced with choreographic grace. The films are interspersed with stills and abstract images which help bring to life the text, all underscored by an organic musical score.
The set by textile designers, Transformit, with Cheryl Dolan as the scenic artist, consists of undulating panels of stretched fabric on a floor cloth of stylized blue ripples. These, when enhanced by Iain Odlin's brilliant lighting design, come alive in a flux of changing moods and colorful emotions, blending together the stage and the multi-media images on the large central screen. Craig Robinson assists Underwood as Technical Director in coordinating the complexities of this performance.
As the Underwater Guy, himself, Underwood gives a compelling performance - natural, shifting and subtle. He moves his tall, lithe frame with a dramatic sense of line and often, consciously or not, seems to reflect the images on the screen. He has a wickedly amusing skill at accents which make all the other characters he plays vivid cameos. Best of all, he tells the story, his story, with a sincerity and charm that is irresistible.
Artistic and Executive Director Brian P. Allen has said he is hoping to tour Underwater Guy, and one surely endorses this plan. It is a performance experience worthy of a larger audience, a creative evening in the theatre that asks us to pause, breathe, and take note of the harmony and beauty around and within us.
Photos Courtesy of Good Theater, Heather Perry photographer
Good Theater, 73 Congress Street, Portland, ME, Brian P. Allen Artistic and Executive Director
For information on Good Theater's 2014-2015 season, visit www.goodtheater.com or call 207-885-5883