Rorschach is back. Voices Underwater, is an eerie experiential journey which shows that, after an eighteen month hiatus, Rorschach hasn’t lost its touch.
The “surface” story is of an inter-racial couple, Emma and Franklin, caught in a raging storm while purchasing an old house from the wife’s southern white lineage. Even before the couple comes on the scene, though, characters from the Civil War and Antebellum period take center stage, and they have Plenty to say.
Clementine Thomas as the young Southern belle spirit Jennie is featured prominently throughout. Her poetic passages are so rhythmic they could almost be set to music as she slithers and sways on top of the large four poster bed that fills the stage yet never overpowers it. Jennie is an adolescent in full discovery mode, finding her way through friendships, family relationships and social status. At the same time, she intersperses her sweet adolescent perspectives on life with vitriolic rantings of white supremacy with startling ease. Thomas hits her marks as a talking spirit languishing about the past and a perfect mimic of her hate-baiting slave-owning father, sliding through the personas with an intense physical presence.
Ricardo Frederick Evans as Franklin also differentiates his several roles with superb clarity. He starts off as the put-upon brother reeling from a “driving while black” incident with the local sheriff’s office and slowly allows his other personality traits to shine through, while transitioning into various characters from his own historical lineage.
Kari Ginsburg as Franklin’s wife Emma has the challenging task of appreciating the tough social dynamics that Franklin is dealing with, and attending to her own needs without going over the top. It’s a struggle, but Ginsburg finds that balance while bringing an urgency to her role that keeps the stakes at full throttle. She and Franklin work through typical domestic arguments where the issues are embedded under layers of racial conceptions, and misconceptions, all nicely rendered by the playwright. In the intense, terrorizing moments when they fear that they will be submerged in the cresting flood waters and cling to each other sharing what could be final mortal declarations, their love comes through as piercingly true.
The water seems at the door, literally, thanks to the sound and light wizardry of Nicole Martin and Andrew F. Griffin who create the look and sound of buckets of rain and tantalizing shadows of the spirits, all under the watchful eye of director Jenny McConnell Frederick who does wonders with the intimate attic-like space and brings an immediacy to all the characters.
In one particularly fascinating scene, Franklin struggles to stop the leakage by binding the curtains to keep the drops from cascading into the room– only we see that Jennie, the adolescent spirit, is part of the binding.
In full Rorschach mode, the production immerses the audience into the setting to feel you’re actually in an old stuffy attic filled to the brim with treasures from long ago. Items from earlier eras are scattered as props, even as you enter the performance space through a maze brimming with the old-fashioned dusty relics. And the program is designed as a deed of sale. The effect is so intoxicatingly real, however, that it’s almost a drawback—there’s a serious discomfort element in being squeezed in such tight poorly ventilated space so that the end of the show is as much a relief to the audience as to the characters praying for flood waters to recede.
The melodic script by Abi Basch has an hypnotic, undulating flow to it, with a repetitive refrain in which Jennie rehashes an ominous moment of discovery and betrayal, providing bits and pieces of what happened with each revealing wave. The work is shadowy and experiential, perfect Rorschach material, especially with its premise that fleeting and historical remnants of the past stay with us as residual flecks in our psychic and societal DNA.
Voices Underwater runs thru April 3, 2011 at National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, 1556 Wisconsin Ave, NW Washington, DC. (enter around the corner on Volta Place).
Written by Abi Basch
Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick
Produced by Rorschach Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Running time: 1 hr, 30 minutes with no intermission