08 August 2009

fear death by water

The doors don’t open for Ecstasy: A Waterfable until right before 8:00, because when you walk in the whole cast is on-stage chanting – OK, the story is already flowing midstream when we enter. This premiere by Denmo Ibrahim is presented by Golden Thread, a Middle East-centered theater group that is new to me (the ticket was part of my subscription to Thick House Theater). It is based on a Sufi parable called When the Waters Were Changed, as is mentioned in every article about the play, though during the play itself you never get to hear the whole parable, which as far as I can figure out seems to be about a day when the waters changed (and changed those who drank them), and one man resisted and was unchanged, until he stopped resisting and joined the others.

This being a Middle Eastern-centered show, there is ululating and keening, and a twinkly and foul-mouthed old wise woman. There are also chants and ceremonies and stories that are repeated in part over and over, there are ablutions and dreams; there is a sense of time that encompasses the present day and the timelessly mythological. Characters turn into other characters and then back into themselves, only played by different actors. Water runs through the whole action in the form of drips or lakes or jugs of water; the set contains boats and sinks and buckets and a toilet. There is a man subject to visions who writes a strange script on the wall, and a young couple coming to terms with changing from two individuals to a couple. There is almost always someone on stage asleep and dreaming, and what we see may or may not be his or her dream.

If this sounds confusing – well, that depends on your point of view. The script and staging are very suggestive, and you will probably seize on the through-line that most reaches you and interpret the action by your own lights – as a story about an individual resisting the group, or surrendering to the group, or as a story about when everyone changes religion (yeah, it's the Middle East) and you don’t, or as a metaphor for becoming sexually active, or as something else entirely.

If you need someone to tell you what the moral is, or if you need a linear narrative, this play will probably bug you. I’m not criticizing people who want those things; it’s just that linear plots aren’t that important to me. And initially, I too was resistant to the show – as I said, there is ululating, in that way that signals “mideastern” just as flamenco guitars signal “Spain,” and an old woman who is alternately wise and potty-mouthed, which can be sort of a cutesy cliché. And there is a character called Birthsong, and if I had taken that in before the play started, I might have run screaming into the night.

But by the end of the evening (and this is a short play – about 75 minutes, no intermission) I was loving it. In fact I felt sort of giddy – it was the sheer theatricality of the whole thing. Much as I love traditional plot- and character-driven theater, lots of those plays would work just as well if they were filmed. Something like this can only be experienced as theater – if you were reading the script, what is fast and fluid would be slow and confusing, and if it were filmed, with dissolves and cuts and other special effects, I think it might look gimmicky instead of as inevitable as it does here. This is theater as lyric poem, and it just doesn’t translate into other media.

So big praise to Ibrahim, and to director Evren Odcikin, and to the very talented ensemble: Cec Levinson, Garth Petal, Nora el Samahy, Roman Kosins, Bobak Bakhtiari, Deborah Eliezer, Bora “Max” Koknar, Alika Spencer, and Heidi Wolff. The show is still running and you have a few more chances to catch it this coming weekend; check here for more info and tickets.


Civic Center said...

I love this review. I'd also rather drink my own urine than see it myself, but your phrase "Something like this can only be experienced as theater" is absolutely wonderful.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Uh, OK, I was hoping to encourage people to go, but I'm glad I could convey enough of what the show was like to let people decide if it fits their taste -- even while I was enjoying it more and more, I thought of some people (Ms V, I do believe I'm looking at you) who would just find it baffling and frustrating.

vicmarcam said...

Yes, when I got to, "or if you need a linear narrative," I thought you were talking about me, so the stubborn part of me wanted to think that you were wrong, but you probably aren't. Even when I'm warned, like a child, ahead of time that there might not be a story to follow, there's still a part of me that longs for a beginning, middle and end.
That being said, it sounds kind of great, and it makes me wish I was better at just going with it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Well, it's like my great discovery about physics, when I took Physics for Nonmajors: when W tried to explain the principles to me, I could see what he was talking about, but the most important thing I learned about physics in that class was that his mind could visualize objects in space in a three-dimensional way that was natural to him but not to me -- I could stretch my mind to it, but it isn't where I would normally go. In other words, I think a taste for nonlinear narrative has something to do with how individual brains work, and not just what school of aesthetics one belongs to or has been trained in.

And this is probably why I've never been very interested in reading mysteries.

Susan said...

Is it too juvenile to jump in and giggle at the word "ululating" ?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

You rowdy kids in the back of the lecture hall!