Setting out to tackle a notion so broad as “water” is a risky theatrical endeavor. Get the balance right and you offer a survey that carefully navigates important issues like politics, science, and humanity. But overfill the vessel with too many lofty ideas and the enterprise gets bogged down. The decade-in-the-making immersive play (Not) Water, by playwright Sheila Callaghan and director Daniella Topol, uses a self-referential tone to acknowledge the wild folly of trying to create theater out of such a massive concept. The work is part of a month-long exhibition series of conversations and installations called “Works on Water,” taking place at 3-Legged Dog.
(Not) Water uses mild audience participation, skits, projections, movement, and monologues; the story concerns a director, DT (Polly Lee), and a playwright, Not Sheila (April Matthis), who are attempting to put together an unwieldy conceptual show that sounds an awful lot like the one we’re watching. Inspired by the events of Hurricane Katrina and other devastating climate-change incidents from the past decade, the play wants to enlighten and educate on this complex topic — but to do so with a playful, infectious spirit.
In a flash, the creative team conjures incognito theater designers from among the audience (Rebecca Hart, Mike Shapiro, Ethan Hova, Carmen M. Herlihy). They query one another regarding how they will go about making a work that’s important but fun, inventive but edgy, political but not. Ultimately, they embrace the chaos of nature and do a bit of everything: There’s a competition of water consumption, a romance between two Norwegian fishermen, and a soggy inanimate kitchen object.
Self-awareness frequently lightens the proceedings, but unfortunately the winks and nods keep reminding us how much (Not) Water wants to accomplish but is not quite homing in on. The characters are constantly explaining the storytelling, but those explications get tedious. Even though the artists cop to knowing that the subject matter is so slippery they can only hope to dabble in it, the intentionally herky-jerky approach is simultaneously too much and not enough: We hardly catch our breath before we’re pulled to the next idea or beat, and neither drama nor knowledge build from the episodic structure.
If the narrative intends to splash around, that’s all the more reason for the visual storytelling to be sharper. For the most part, the audience sits in a large circle facing each other while the action happens in the center. Projections on three sides try to set the stage: crashing waves, Norwegian fishing villages, photographs of the horrifying destruction wrought by floods. But a lot of the time it’s just a few props and the actors telling us what we’re looking at. With mismatched chairs, a plywood floor, pool rafts, and sculptures made of water bottles, the overall design evokes the feeling of a casual mess.
In the end, we experience a hurried outline of the topical points instead of a play or a collection of thematically connected scenes. But one monologue about Superstorm Sandy (particularly resonant when delivered here downtown) moves with slow, distinct purpose. It clearly delineates the personal, human cost of ignoring the signs of the darkening clouds around us, and in that moment we understand how intimate theater can address something monumental.
80 Greenwich Street
Through June 30