Smile Politely

Theatre definitely not dead, just morbid

The cynical edge of humor, it’s been said, rests on mortality. Slip on a banana peel; break your neck; get a few yuks. Station Theatre’s staging of Lee Blessing’s fairly recent drama, A Body of Water, wedges existential crisis in there along with memory lapse, deception, and willful forgetting.

The execution recalls some of the works of English playwright Harold Pinter in its inclusion of odd characters forced, by proximity, circumstance or fate, into confining, absurd situations. Also like Pinter, the play is, by turns, hilarious, farcical almost, and quite frightening in that telling, silence-laden “why-can’t-we-get-through-to-each-other-damn-this-dramatic-constraint” sort of way. Oh, also, leaves you with a helluva disorienting trip out of the theatre. The execution works.

The story features a middle-aged couple waking in a summer house unaware of their identities or that of their maybe-lover’s, even disoriented as to their location, yet oddly complacent, or maybe even contented as to the situation. They experiment with various quasi-investigative measures (including one of the most interesting uses for kitchen tongs I may have ever seen…) and wear what may be stolen bath-robes.

When a younger intruder (or maybe they’re intruders?) enters the living room, the calm is shattered, things get realer and lose the pleasant, comedic fictions and naïveté of the play’s first moments. Their terse, frustrated interloper assumes a genuine gravitas and presents and rescinds fictions of her own as to the origins of the couple’s odd, collective amnesia. Shrouded in a terrible crime against the couple’s lost daughter. Or maybe she is the lost daughter. And we never seem to get those early morning moments of bath-robe-and-coffee-cup innocence again.

Director Aaron Polk’s staging of the play is effective and under-stated, well-serving of the piece. The blocking seems natural and realistic, essential to such an odd play, and the pacing is spot-on. Silence is well-utilized, not just technically, but almost as a motif, crowding out any simplicity left in this domestic arena. The cast achieves a unique chemistry among their parts, working well between states of communion and alienation in bitterly private places. Effective costuming kept the chronology clear when it may have otherwise been lost; similar, characteristic styles with subtle differences in scenes. The selection of musical interludes brought, I hesitate to say “enjoyable”, down-beat segues.

Paul Kaiser’s set design also deserves a nod for its simplicity and elegance. The well-painted forest canopy outside the stage-right panel of windows, somewhat dimmer beyond the plexi-glass, leaves the audience thinking there’s something more outside, but we aren’t quite sure what it is. If only we could get out of this damn living room. Would that be enough? Yes, get out of the damn living room.

A Body of Water runs through Sunday, February 20th at 8 p.m. in the intimate Station Theatre at 223 N. Broadway near downtown Urbana.

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