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BWW Review: Seattle Public Theater's Intense DRY LAND Drowns in Gratuitousness

BWW Review: Seattle Public Theater's Intense DRY LAND Drowns in Gratuitousness
Libby Barnard and Madilyn Cooper in
Dry Land at Seattle Public Theater.
Photo credit: John Ulman

The word that springs to mind when I think of Seattle Public Theater's current production of Ruby Rae Spiegel's "Dry Land" is "gratuitous". That's the first thing I think of. Not "intense" or "gripping" as the climactic scene was, or "raw" or "honest" as much of the dialog between the young girls felt, but "gratuitous" as all of that is overshadowed by a production that felt the need to, I don't know, shock or fill time? The play is already shocking, and the filler just diluted that shock, so I am only left with "gratuitous".

Allow me to give you some context first, Dear Readers. In "Dry Land" we are invited into the locker room of a high school girls swim team where Amy (Libby Barnard) and Ester (Madilyn Cooper) are playing a game, it seems, as Amy says to Ester, "Punch me." We quickly realize this is no game but two teenage girls' misguided attempts at causing one of them to lose a newly conceived baby. The two of them without the resources they need for a proper abortion, work through one "home remedy" they find on the internet after another. Meanwhile we find that Amy has enlisted Ester because she can't bring this up to her best friend Reba (Cheyenne Barton), so Ester is her safest bet.

In this play we see how the relationship of these three women is torn apart and put back together by this divisive secret. Barnard plays Amy beautifully with her tough exterior just aching to let someone in and when she's challenged you can practically see her walls go up. Cooper is stunning as the stalwart friend who remains constant throughout. And her scene with Christopher Morson as the jock hating college student with whom she's forced to hang out with in the hallway of his dorm is a delight as the two exude tremendous chemistry. Barton plays the vapid bad girl well although I don't feel the script gives her much to work with and the same could be said for Bob Williams who makes a singular appearance as a school janitor. But the climactic scene between Barnard and Cooper, which I warn you is quite graphic and potentially triggering, is handled phenomenally well and is a stunner.

I wish I could leave it at that. I wish I could say that director Anita Montgomery trusted the play enough to stand (or swim) on its own. But instead there's so much more happening here. You see, unlike other productions I've investigated, there's more to this cast as there are five more actresses listed as Ensemble. Mariah Lee Squires, Alyssa Woodbury, Sienna Mendez, Daisy Schreiber, and Elex Hill make up the rest of the swim team and appear quite frequently in the locker room. For the most part they help change the scenes, but they also appear in between scenes to carry on unscripted conversations and get changed to go on for swim practice. Yes, Montgomery has what amounts to the stage crew come on and get undressed in front of the audience for ... what reason? Ambience? I get we're in a locker room. The set is quite well done. And others who actually have lines get changed if you really need that. I don't need extras to repeatedly get changed in front of me to sell the point. Hence, "gratuitous". And these added bits with the rest of the team go on way too long with no added point or value. And in one instance one set of extras sat on one side of the stage having their little conversation while on the other side of the stage there was actual dialog going on. God forbid you were on the side of the theater with the extras and had to try and work your way through the improv to get to the play. Guess what, I was on that side.

There are other plays out there where the action takes place in private, intimate places like locker rooms. "Take Me Out" springs to mind. But there, the nudity is coming from people actually a part of the story and is integral to it and not used for window dressing. And especially when said nudity isn't even a part of the script to begin with, I seriously have to question the judgement of the theater. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Seattle Public Theater's production of "Dry Land" a MEH. And it only gets that from the outstanding performances which would have gotten it more were it not for the repeated superfluous and gratuitous ways to change the set.

"Dry Land" performs at Seattle Public Theater through April 14th. For tickets or information visit them online at

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