Hot Water

The Water Children
By Wendy MacLeod
The New Theatre

Wendy MacLeod's play The Water Children, which The New Theatre opened last weekend at New City School, takes about the clearest look at the debate over legal abortion I have experienced. The play moves away from abstraction and places the problem where it belongs: among believable people of goodwill who cannot agree among themselves on one correct response. The Water Children has its flaws -- a too-fast second act, a deus ex machina moment of truth and a have-a-nice-day conclusion. A skilled and appealing cast, however -- plus handsome technical work on set, lighting and costumes, and straightforward direction by Agnes Wilcox -- makes The Water Children an emotional and intellectual experience that is both entertaining and edifying.

The play concerns a competent and appealing thirtysomething actor, Meg (played by competent and appealing Debbie Dawson), who accepts a job in a pro-life commercial because she needs the money. Imagine her surprise when she finds Randall, the head of the organization sponsoring the commercial (winningly played by John Pierson), so attractive that she falls in love with him and he with her. She then gets pregnant and falls out of love (rather unreasonably, I thought) because Randall's organization is about to hire legal defense for Tony, a psychotic kid (Jared Joplin's strong, sure characterization inspires pity, fear and a little nausea) who has murdered three people at an abortion clinic. Meg leaves Randall and the U.S. for a job on a Japanese soap opera, the god pops out of the machine and the play ends surprisingly.

The Water Children is almost entirely without stereotypes, although there is one -- Meg's lesbian left-wing ideologue roommate, Liz (Cintia Sutton). The play also has a magic realism character, the ghost (as it were) of a fetus/child Meg aborted when she was 16. John Krewson does a magical job with the role as he moves from age to age, either independent of Meg's memory or as part of it. The production also has manifold little parts for Stellie Siteman (who's just not seen enough around here) and Ted Cancila (who's been seen a lot -- hurrah! -- recently). Alison Moritz is charmingly tedious as teenage Crystal, a child saved miraculously from abortion.

I believe that MacLeod's point in The Water Children is that pro-life and pro-choice folk can be complex people with complex motivations, and what gets us into trouble is absolutism. Meg acts from conviction sometimes, emotion sometimes, and (we hope) conscience in doing what she does. The Water Children has made only a small dent in my own stance on abortion, but it certainly gave me 90 minutes of fear and trembling. I hope a lot of people on both sides of the abortion dilemma take the opportunity to fear and tremble, too.

-- Harry Weber

Ship in a Bottle
By Jerrold Rabushka
Ragged Blade Productions

In the interest of wanting to support local artists, allow me to write the following: If you've been waiting for a gay S&M bondage musical, then your prayers are answered. Rush to St. John's United Methodist Church this weekend for the final performances of Ship in a Bottle. If, in fact, this is truly the case with you, read no further on this page, and go and enjoy.

Having now served the cause, I now must report that, for the second time as a reviewer, I walked out of a show after the first act. This is not easy to do, for I try to take the responsibility seriously, but as a human being, I have limits. Ship surely surpassed all of mine. Ship begins with a man being shackled and chained by an angel, or a spirit, or something and being auctioned to two unappealing men -- one an alcoholic, the other an obsessive whiner. There is much talk of master, slave and of how love does awful things to all involved, and then a few songs about it, too. The whiner later sings about his obsession with a sailor who died in a squall. The alcoholic gets a riff on how he just can't give up the bottle for love. At the end of the first act, the slave sings to his mother about how he's comin' home.

If all of this had been played for camp, it might have held the audience's attention. As it was, it was all terribly sincere, and often sincerely terrible. As the chief creative force for the work, Jerrold Rabushka must be credited for trying to explore some new areas onstage and for attempting to articulate some complex themes about masters and slaves. But the dialogue was didactic and implausible, and the show's metaphorical framework was arch and dulling. As far as examining the human heart, your average Lifetime Cheryl Ladd TV movie is more effective.

So why couldn't I stick it out? Are my standards for a local production like this too high? Well, it is very, very rare that there is nothing on a stage that can hold my attention and make me stay. But Rabushka's work just kept hitting the same sad, immature and ultimately self-indulgent note over and over and over again. Ship in a Bottle should have been a conversation with a therapist, not a play, and especially not a musical. As for the performers, they were uncommonly brave. But the sum total was so dispiriting, and so void of any element that one might possibly go to the theater for, that staying another hour would have just been offering nothing more than a representative nod of my respect and affection for artists and their experiments. But on Saturday night, its limit was surely reached, and escaping into the cool, clear night was the only humane option.

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