Four and a half years ago, scientists from the Tawani Foundation decided to test Lake Untersee – a highly alkaline body of water capped by a thick shelf of ice in Antarctica – for extremophile microorganisms, which is to say tiny, living creatures which thrive under extreme conditions. They found some – most notably, an animal that was able to metabolize hydrogen. The objective of this enterprise was to determine whether there could be life under the extreme conditions found on other planets (particularly at the polar ice caps of Mars) and, if so, what it would be like. The Tawani Foundation’s work has opened the door for bold new adventures in the biological and space sciences.
It has also opened a door for people in the metaphor-creating business, and playwright Joe Waechter has scooted through the opening with such enthusiasm that he has created a metaphor which threatens to metabolize his entire play. In Lake Untersee Rocky (Noah Chiet) is a fifteen-year-old boy in love with Charley, a creature who lives under the ice in Lake Untersee. His parents – you probably have guessed this – don’t understand him.
Phyllis (Adrienne Armstrong) is Rocky’s novelist mother; as the play opens she is still his custodial parent, although her ex-husband Jason (Mark Ludwick) remains the lad’s physician. Rocky is a load: he barks instead of speaks, he is sullen and withdrawn, and when his mother takes him to make snow angels, he makes snowdoggies instead. So when dad refuses to prescribe any palliative medications, she proposes that he take over custody instead. He agrees, and soon Rocky is living with his father and his father’s live-in girlfriend, the visual artist Gale (Liz Osborn).
Rocky barks, of course, because it’s hard to tell your parents that you’re in love with a creature which lives under the ice in Antarctica, and that you need to rescue him. Or perhaps this is a metaphor for The Love that Dares Not Speak Its Name, but if so it gives the play a somewhat retro feel. (There are a couple of other touches which seem to put the play into the seventies: Phyllis writes on a portable manual typewriter, and Gale pronounces herself “post-Freudian”. On the other hand, the costumes are modern, Phyllis asks Jason to give Rocky Prozac – a drug not popularized until the mid-nineties – and life in Lake Untersee was unexplored until 2007.)
This is not to say that it’s easy for an adolescent to come out to his parents, even today, even where the parents are educated people – writers, physicians, artists. But the sort of soul-clogging, tongue-stilling, this-is-the-worst-secret-in-the-world melodrama which characterizes this work is not of our era.
Rocky has plenty of templates for coming out; there are athletes, entertainers, and political leaders who are gay, and not the worse for it. Rocky’s parents are self-involved and a little oblivious, but Waechter gives us no indication that they are homophobic. Besides, Waechter pushes his creature-under-the-ice story hard at the play’s conclusion, so it’s hard not to take him literally.
Waechter strongarms his icy metaphor onto his characters in other parts of the play as well. Phyllis suffers from writer’s block and Gale can’t complete her mural. They are iced over, creatively. (Neither of these developments are integral, or even consequential, to the play). Phyllis and Jason seem to be incapable of love throughout much of the play, although we do see an unexplained conversion moment shortly before the denouement. The result of Waechter’s attention to metaphor at the expense of story is that his adult characters come off as cartoonish, a failing which the actors – particularly Armstrong – are unable to overcome.
1 hour, 25 minutes with no intermission
Source Festival at
1835 14th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20009
Produced by CulturalDC’s Source Festival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
But the real redemption of Lake Untersee is the astonishing performance of the fabulous child actor Noah Chiet. His passion, pain and yearning pump life into this feeble text; there is not a single false moment in his performance, and when he calls out to his improbable beloved, it is not in the voice of the deluded child but in the voice of all of us who have ever experienced love and loss.
When he barks, it is not as a dog or a child but as a man being strangled by the disease of life; when he announces his mission of recovery to a sympathetic Gale, we receive it respectfully, as we would receive the resolution of any adult who decides to take on a difficult task. Chiet, who is well known for his successful performances in child roles, takes on a role which tasks him with showing adult emotions in an adult way, while still being a child. He knocks it out of the park.
Lake Untersee by Joe Waechter, is part of The Source Festival. Directed by Rick Hammerly . Featuring Noah Chiet, Adrienne Armstrong, Mark Ludwick and Liz Osborn. Casey Kaleba is the fight choreographer. Set and props by Deb Sivigny, lighting design by Joseph R. Walls, sound design by Roni Lancaster, costume design by Katie Touart. Patrick Magill is the stage manager; Amanda Zeitler was the rehearsal stage manager. Produced by CulturalDC’s Source Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor