Review by Samuel L. Leiter
Underland, a grimly atmospheric, grimly amusing, and, I’m afraid, grimly opaque Australian play by Alexandra Collier now playing at 59E59 Theaters, takes us to a remote town in the hot, hot, hot, dry, dry, dry bush country. Gabriel Hainer Evanson’s set shows an arrangement of corrugated steel walls (painted with starlike images) suggesting the shelter sheds people use to escape the rains (a seeming rarity here), and that serve the local kids as a smoking hangout. The same set serves for all scenes, indoors and out.
As implied by the opening, in which a phys. ed. teacher, Mr. Brown (Jens Rasmussen), enters alone to pull one, then another bloody tooth out of his aching jaw, something’s rotten in the outback. What follows takes us on a quirky journey into a world where, under the big sky above, things are happening down under the drought-plagued land that are threatening its wellbeing.
Violet (Angeleia Stark) and Ruth (Kiley Lotz), cocky, potty mouthed, uniformed schoolgirls seeking a way out, have dug a tunnel, hoping to reach China. Before they have a chance to enter it, Mr. Taka (Daniel K. Isaac), a bored Japanese office worker taking a nap under his desk in Tokyo, has found its other end and crawled his way to Australia. (As with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from which the play clearly draws its inspiration, you must check your logic at the door.) Speaking both Japanese and broken English, and coddling a Tamagotchi, he’s thirsty and wants to go back home.
People have gone missing, the crocs have left their riverbed and are getting closer, and someone is displaying croc-like tendencies. For reasons undisclosed, the pretty, idealistic Miss Harmony (Georgia Cohen) has come to this Godforsaken place to teach art at the high school, where she encourages Violet’s talent. Her liberal attitudes are challenged by the mistrustful, hard-nosed Mr. Brown. The only other person we meet is the chubby, eccentric Mrs. Butterfat (Annie Golden), a nonbeliever who teaches religion, talks to her late husband, Glen, and takes night bike rides, as long as someone’s willing to go with her, which has become increasingly unlikely.
Underland’s mixture of realistic and poetic dialogue (including Carroll’s “How Doth the Little Crocodile”)—with oft repeated images of smoking, sex, digging, dryness, and death, among others—remains too emotionally distanced for more than cerebral involvement. The play begins more or less matter of factly, but surrealism comes to dominate. That shouldn’t be an excuse, however, for failing to integrate the several plot threads, nor for not answering the central question, either figuratively or literally, regarding the evil that’s occurring. Ambiguity is not always its own reward.
Mia Rovegno has staged the hour and thirty-five minute piece for the Terra Nova Collective with imagination, and all the actors—particularly Annie Golden—play their parts well, although Mr. Isaac’s character is a rather offensively stereotypical Japanese. There are some effective lighting bits designed by Burke Brown, Elisheba Ittoop has created eerily appropriate sound effects, and Moria Sine Clinton’s costumes do what they’re supposed to. In the end, however, what it all adds up to remains pretty much a crock.
59 East 59th Street
Through April 25