The work of Lee Blessing has seen a great deal of stage time in Asheville as of late, with N.C. Stage’s production last season of Chesapeake, as well as the Catalyst Series production of Two Rooms. Fans of either or both of those shows will not necessarily find a similar experience with the Immediate Theatre Project’s current production of Blessing’s Body Of Water, which deviates from the previous productions considerably in style and tone. However, N.C. Stage’s partner company in residence has applied its own touch to the slippery gargantuan script. With measured direction and purposeful acting, the result is an experience all its own.
The play opens with a couple that wake with no memory of who they are. They find themselves wandering around an unfamiliar house in unfamiliar bathrobes that just happen to fit perfectly, and aren’t even sure of their possible relationship with each other. As these unnamed characters stumble about and theorize on who they are and how they may have arrived in their situation, everything is approached in an almost light-hearted, comical fashion; at one point, the woman inspects the man’s most delicate area with a set of kitchen tongs (the action shrouded from the audience by a carefully-placed opened bathrobe) in an effort to discover some minor bodily details that would surely jog her memory.
The play’s tone frequently shifts drastically and suddenly from the lightly comedic to the dangerously vulnerable. This happens first when the third character in the production, a young woman named Wren, appears and fails to identify herself in any conclusive way to the man and woman. From this moment on, the audience can be sure that though they are at the first severe drop on the roller-coaster plot of this play, it will certainly not be the last.
As Blessing explores the concepts of memory, relationship and identity, he makes it clear by the second half of act one that nothing is sacred. The most abrupt and disturbing plot twist of the show (if it can be called that, as any plot point in this show is relatively tenuous) will certainly unsettle many an audience member — but what is even more unsettling is the lack of knowledge that this new twist is even an actual twist at all.
So unmoored are any facts in this play that one may very well feel during intermission that they still have absolutely no idea what is really going on. Whether or not this is a state to be appreciated is left to individual taste, much like those who love David Lynch can spend evenings arguing with those who find his movies far too disturbing and emotionally upsetting. Without revealing too much of intricacies of this play’s twists and turns, suffice to say that they could be considered gratuitously complex or thrillingly upending. The play does disappoint, however, in its exploration of relationships between the three characters.
Director Hans Meyer says in a media release “As a director, I am always interested in relationships, in who these people are to each other and why we should care. In this case, since neither they nor we really know who they are, we learn about their relationships at the same time as they do. It’s an unusual angle, but we still come to care very much about their stories, and about them as people.” But since the audience is never entirely confident of who is to whom in this play, or what they have or have not done to each other, it is difficult to truly connect to the emotional weight of their experience. When witnessing the dissolution of human relationships onstage, the audience expects to learn something from the experience. Yet Blessing’s character development is so dependent on the vagaries of the plot that it leaves something to be desired.
Meyer is no stranger to the director’s chair, having directed Copenhagen and Oleanna for the Immediate Theatre Project, and the now annual touring production of It’s a Wonderful Life, co-produced with N.C. Stage. His direction of this unwieldy work is largely invisible, which is the way it should be for cleanly-structured theatre. Choosing the dramatically-dense, instrumental music of modern band Radiohead for scene transitions added to the seriousness of the plot, almost over-saturating the space with drama. Kay Galvin and Marty Rader kept a great pace with their performances, which, considering the ever-changing nature of their character’s relationships, were something akin to a marathon through a landscape that could change wildly from a jungle to an Arctic tundra. Katie Fuller has a challenging role, as she interrupts the barely established fluidity of Galvin and Rader’s characters early in Act One, and has to vacillate from a seemingly caring daughter-figure to an exasperated, manipulative, even cruel captor, sometimes in the same scene. Fuller’s stage presence is not as commanding as the other actors, as her vocal energy was far too low in the first half of the show and a few lines were swallowed up or trailed off unintelligibly. However, Fuller manages to hold her own in some pivotal scenes, particularly during a poignant exchange between her and the man in the middle of Act Two.
A Body of Water claims to be a show that “grapples with big issues and intense feelings.” Immediate Theatre Project’s production will not disappoint on that front, but whether the audience leaves with a sense of clarity about those issues and intense feelings is likely an experience unique to each person; to one, greatly interesting and intricate, like a fantastic puzzle you never mind if you don’t actually finish, or endlessly frustrating and ultimately, emotionally elusive.
A Body of Water by Lee Blessing will be performed at North Carolina Stage Company (Partner Company in Residence Series) through May 17. Tickets $15. Show times are 7:30 Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Visit www.immediatetheatre.org or www.ncstage.org for details.