Review: New Play Dives Into the Use and Abuse of Water

Mike Shapiro (left) and Ethan Hova in a scene from "(Not) Water." Photo: Marina McClure

Jun. 15, 2017

Prepare for total immersion—in water and its mythic and fragile place in our world in the new play “(Not) Water,” conceived by Sheila Callaghan and Daniella Topol. The audience never gets soaked but you may be asked to write a story, read some lines and taste some curious offerings during this rambling, often funny, experiential production that ends with the audience members lying on inflatable rafts.

The publicity blurb describes “(Not) Water” as an “epic exploration” of water and our use and abuse of it in the face of environmental science that shows that it may soon run out. So naturally the show starts with a stand up comedian telling corny water jokes. “How do they make Holy water? Boil the hell out of it.”

But all is not what it seems. This is, in fact, a play within a play or, more accurately, a behind-the-scenes peek at a group of activist actors trying to develop a show about water. They reject the stand up routine as lacking in gravitas and replace it with a monologue by a Hurricane Katrina survivor;  both openings are performed by the versatile April Matthis.

The audience, seated in the round in the cavernous space at 3LD with watery images projected on the walls, soon finds out that the stranger beside them may be part of the action. The next monologue—an Irish woman, played by Polly Lee, who loses her fear of water—is delivered from a seat in the audience.

The madcap action proceeds like a massive free-flowing improvisation and soon we are in a rowboat with two gay Norwegian fishermen, played in apparently fluent Norwegian by Mike Shapiro and Ethan Hova. Subtitles projected on the walls thankfully translate. A few moments later, we eavesdrop on a cast member calling his mother: “It’s hard to explain,” he says of the play. No kidding. But “(Not) Water”’s oddness is part of its charm.

This is not a show for shrinking violets. Before the audience even sits down, you are invited to write a few sentences about water. The slips of paper are collected and their significance is revealed later.

Some ticket holders were handed mics and asked to read a few lines of script. Another man was cajoled to answer a ringing phone and then the lights went out. This came at the end of a sequence about Superstorm Sandy. With flashlights, we were ushered out of the theater and into a corridor as if we were being evacuated. Those of us who remember this neighborhood during Sandy could certainly relate! But dividing the audience into two groups was an unexpected twist. One group detoured into the women’s bathroom while the other was led into the building’s basement. In either location, we encountered a dystopian future where the water has finally run out with grim consequences. This is where the tastings take place, too.

“(Not) Water” effectively captures our superficial attitude to environmental concerns through the players acting as their earnest selves as they devise their play. “We recycle but we take long showers,” Matthis observes on the set decorated with empty plastic bottles.

As the U.S. exits from the Paris Climate Accord, our collective reliance on the earth’s natural resources should be front of mind. “(Not) Water” may encourage you to shorten your time in the shower and it is part of a series of other “Works on Water” at 3LD Art and Technology Center, including video installations and artist-built boats. The excellent ensemble company exudes a warmth and passion that is infectious and facilitates the ease with which we all happily laid down on inflatable rafts for the final scene.

However, some overlong speeches and “experiences” threaten to undermine the serious message. While the inventive format is a fine evening of theater, the play rather skims the surface of the looming water crisis instead of plumbing the depths.

“(Not) Water” was co-conceived by Sheila Callaghan and Daniella Topol,  written by Sheila Callaghan and directed by Daniella Topol. The cast includes: Rebecca Hart, Carmen R. Herlihy, Ethan Hova, Polly Lee, April Matthis and Mike Shapiro

The show continues through June 30 at 3LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich St. and runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.