Review: THROUGH THE SUNKEN LANDS at The Kennedy Center

The show runs through March 17th.

By: Mar. 03, 2024
Review: THROUGH THE SUNKEN LANDS at The Kennedy Center
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At its Center's Family Theater, The Kennedy Center premiered Through the Sunken Lands, a contemporary musical focused on a younger audience. Originally commissioned as a radio play, the new staged version offered a wide variety of formal and thematic delights. 

The show follows Artemis Sims (Meredith Aleigha Wells), who is trapped on the roof of her favorite place in her hometown of Arcady, the library. A flood has overtaken the town, and Artemis, now stranded, must figure out a way to contact her Aunt Maggie (Sarah Anne Sillers), who is respectively stranded on her house. 

Though alone, Artemis is determined to persevere through these hard times, and content to make the library an accessible haven. Accessibility is a key theme in the show, as Artemis has a disability, and uses a wheelchair, which she explains to our other main character, Nicodemis, (Carl L. Williams), a talking heron hungry for fish. 

Artemis' disability is never expressed as something being "wrong" with her, or as her main identity, or trait. It's mentioned the inaccessibility of her town is a reason she wants to leave, and a cause for frustration sometimes. The material is handled with the intended younger audience in mind, and parents can bring their kids to the show knowing there is positive and three-dimensional representation of disabled people front and center. 

The show also provides sophisticated, yet age-appropriate commentary on a number of themes and topics, including ecological refugees, predatory land developers, and invasive species. Nicodemus can't fish because an invasive fish is upsetting the ecosystem, he and Artemis decide to work together to try and survive the flood, and the ecological disaster it caused. 

Nicodemis is an expressive puppet, designed by Matthew Pauli, and operated and voiced by Carl L. Williams. Williams' vocal stylings while both speaking and singing were full of fun quirks and accentuations. Additionally, his clothing (costumes by Jeanette Christensen) was cleverly designed, evoking a "birdy" vibe, while not trying to be directly representational or hide the performer. Williams and Wells have a fun chemistry, and are the focus and anchor of the plot and imagery of the show. 

Another key character is the aforementioned Aunt Maggie. She and Artemis communicate through audio tapes flown back and forth by Nicodemis, and their relationship touches on themes of parentage, family, and forgiveness. Sillers' Maggie is strong, worn, and hopeful. 

The musical numbers of the show, written by Avi Amon, who also wrote the lyrics with Tim J. Lord, varied from conventional contemporary musical theatre sounds, to more folksy and almost Americana scapes. All performers gave a confident and robust vocal performance, however, a particular delight was the voice of Sillers. Her deep, dulcet, and oaky voice really painted the sonic world of the show beautifully, and one certainly looked forward to her solos. 

Review: THROUGH THE SUNKEN LANDS at The Kennedy Center
Sarah Anne Sillers in Through the Sunken Lands. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Other particular performances of note came from Farrell Parker and Anna Theoni DiGiovanni, who play (among other roles) the nefarious "Committee," the antagonists of the show. While playing horribly corrupt and manipulative villains, these two are hard not to love. From their matching spiky-shouldered suits and pantomimed watercraft, to their unique and stylized way of speaking, "The Committee" made every age in the theatre laugh.  

Review: THROUGH THE SUNKEN LANDS at The Kennedy Center
Meredith Aleigha Wells, Anna Theoni DiGiovanni, and Farrell Parker in Through the Sunken Lands. Photo by Teresa Wood.

All these performances took place on a very clever and well-designed set by Andrew Cohen. Taking place on the tops of flooded buildings, in this production, the stage floor is actually dangerous and violent waters. The library where Artemis resides really does look as though it's submerged in the water and the whole illusion is pulled off rather well. 

The world was detailed further by the sound design, by Justin Schmitz. Even in the preshow, there were immersive sounds and soundscapes welcoming the audience members in. The sonic world of the show was just as vibrant as the physical one, however, during this showing, sound levels were a little unbalanced, and the lyrics hard to hear. Assuredly a one-off hiccup, and certainly not a grave one. 

The whole show was crafted with the audience in mind, from preshow to finale, and at its heart are two things, a strongly crafted narrative centered around environmentalism, and Wells' Artemis. 

A fun, engaging, and educational night of theatre, Through the Sunken Lands, is well worth the price and trip to the Kennedy Center. Cara Phipps' vision is robust, alive, and layered with apt and timely commentary, contemporary humor, and real consideration for these important topics. It fills a storybook space in many ways, but feels real and centered in a reality that many people exist in the real world. 

For more information on tickets, including sensory-friendly performances, visit The Kennedy Center's website. Most enjoyed by ages 9+.