Water is a compound necessary for life. In the wrong proportion, it can be a medium for death. In H20 by Jane Martin, directed by West Hyler, water is a symbol conveying rich religious and spiritual metaphors, rippling throughout undercurrents about self-deception, obsession, compulsion and self-destruction. Presented by Ground Up Productions and currently at 59E59 Theaters, Martin’s work is disturbing and thought-provoking, darkly comic and compelling.
From the outset Martin presents her two highly charged characters at opposite ends of the personality and impulse spectrum, then pits them against one another for the play’s duration. This ironic drama is one battle scene after another, and we realize at the very beginning that one or the other will not make it out of their strange interactions alive or intact. Theirs is a war of philosophies, beliefs, lifestyles, rationalizations and personal negotiations with self. Each in his or her own way embraces elements of the light and the dark abyss.
Thus, they provoke each other to extremes and shake the core of each others’ identities and desires. The relationship dynamic between the two characters is magnificently constructed. Through their interplay, Martin suggests the inevitability of what happens when one individual presents a form of love, care and concern which is misunderstood. This putrefies the relationship for both individuals if no attempt at kind, authentic reconciliation is made.
Deborah (Diane Mair, with emotional resonance and vitality) in her initial soliloquy to the audience confesses that she feels God speaking to her. She explains that her relationship with God is to embody his presence and carry on His work and mission through her acting career. Antihero Jake (a sardonic, compelling and searing portrayal by Alex Podulke) is a tortured soul who has little self-worth, confidence or inner peace and joy. He is on a personal mission of excessive self-loathing and self-destruction.
The conflict explodes with Jake’s introduction. We are shocked that he has no doubts about what he wants and appears to be hellbent on self-annihilation as he slits his wrists (to do the least damage), falls to the floor and slowly bleeds. This occurs at the precise time that Deborah is scheduled to audition with him for the role of Ophelia. Coincidence? Probably not.
The sardonic irony smacks us in the face. Deborah’s mission for God manifests when she opens the door to Jake’s apartment and views the horror of his bloody handiwork. Embracing life, she phones for help and prays that she may be of some use to heal “those who have been torn.” Unlike Hamlet – the role Jake was to be playing against Deborah’s Ophelia – his timing is perfect; Deborah rescues him and he lives.
The first part of Deborah’s prayer has apparently been answered, much to Jake’s fury at waking up alive to find the auditioner for Ophelia is praying at his hospital bedside. In shock he rails against her and curses her for saving him from the atheistic oblivion he sought. He assumes she rescued him out of pity and wants his gratitude because he is famous for his role as silent superhero Dawnwalker. He also assumes that she is a fan of “Jake,” the gorgeous star who is famous and worth millions.
Deborah assures him he is wrong, she is not attracted to him, and his “salvation” was tied in with her faith. He encourages her to leave and take her fantasy life about God with her. A great clue to the authenticity of her Christianity is that she is obstructive and non-cooperative. She tells him he “is touching because he is drained of meaning.”
This is a war of wills, a battle of egos: the atheistic, hedonistic spoiled man-child pulls one end of the towline while the nun-like, proud religionista girl-child strains at the other. Martin foreshadows through the affronted dialogue between these two emotionally self-deceptive actors that when they let go, both will fall into a metaphoric ditch.
With their initial interplay Martin sows the seeds of devastated obsession. Jake and Deborah most likely will never be able to communicate so as to be in the same mental or emotional terrain and understand one another. There is no compromising, no shared territory except acting, a sardonic irony that speaks volumes as both are caught up in their own personal dramas. However, that doesn’t keep Jake from trying to fathom who Deborah is, despite their rocky beginning. It also doesn’t stop Deborah from remaining aloof from Jake emotionally while attempting to “fulfill her mission,” that of pursuing her acting career to serve God, even if it means that Jake will be her “mission.”
In the scenes that follow, an explosive and commanding Jake has recovered and reveals he has a dark sense of humor. He has forgiven Deborah her transgression of salvation. His producer arranges a meeting between Deborah and Jake for it is in Jake’s power to give Deborah the part of Ophelia. Deborah, obsessed with her mission for God as a great actress, is repulsed that Jake has taken pity on her to give her the part undeservedly without an audition. She refuses the role and again, there is the sturm und drang, explanations, rationalizations and aspirations. Jake explains the vapidity of his life and the outrageous arc of his successful achievements. Deborah accedes that he has greater name recognition than Buddah and Vishnu, and he quips, but “not Christ.”
It is the one point they agree on. Jake continues to assert his dominance and charisma, explaining that she will be able to help him with the language of Shakespeare. Deborah is nonplussed and cracks a response he cannot answer. She expresses her pride and throws in a Christian icon as a sop. He has demeaned her by slighting her acting talent when she knows she is a great actress and intends to prove it. But considering he demeans everything, evidencing “soul sickness,” it is understandable. She claims that he offers her the one thing she wants, then makes it as “meaningless” as he is. She judges this act as “the devil’s handiwork.”
Martin has contrived Deborah’s manipulations and rationalizations to be so brilliant that Jake believes her. And why shouldn’t he? She believes herself. But, as we see by the play’s conclusion, her faith is sorely wanting, and Jake tries it continually. Whether he senses her underlying weakness or not, Jake is confounded and challenged by her determined aesthetic and self-discipline. He is confounded by his obsession to please her. Despite himself, he is drawn in.
Deborah molds him like putty to her own desires so that two weeks later, he relents, willing to compromise so that he will keep on seeing her. Martin’s characterizations are profound; they intimate unconscious reasons for these two to continually engage. We understand it is not love, but what is it that both are looking for from the other through stormy provocations? Is Deborah drawn to Jake because he fulfills her mission? The production has engaged us and we are enthralled.
When Jake parks himself at her apartment door and she eventually comes out, he mollifies her ego and explains that none of the other weak-willed Ophelias will convince him that he is Hamlet. Only she can. We note the acute irony in the parallels with the play Hamlet. Martin has contrived Jake’s explanations so that Deborah, desperate to believe him, forgets that he performs “the devil’s handiwork.”
With minimalistic sets and stark direction by Hyler, we focus on Martin’s characterizations, and the fine actors amuse us with machinations and self-deceptions as they parry, entranced with their own repulsion/attraction, with no one to mediate the “truth” of their interplay. Both conveniently agree the “fault” lies with Jake’s emptiness, and Deborah believes he has one way out: Christ. Nevertheless, how she is leading Jake to this “one” way beggars the peace, love and joy of the faith she claims she has.
Throughout, Mair and Alex, aptly shepherded by Hyler, maintain the tension and breakneck force between these two manipulative individuals. How Jake contrives Deborah to assume the part of Ophelia and how he turns the tables on her is finely written and acted with superb precision. Indeed, both actors evolve in the roles and are exceptional. At the outset I did see the steamroller ending coming. But it is more than logical: Deborah has helped to effect it, and Jake, as much as he deceived himself into thinking otherwise, was heading in one direction because of Deborah’s response to him with her faith-filled pride and arrogant exceptionalism. Indeed, he has manipulated and chosen her for the part of agent provocateur. Initially blind to herself, in this role she begins to realize who she is.
Clear water is a metaphor for spiritual faith that endures and transcends. The waters of the play’s conclusion are anything but clear. Martin conveys the theme that undercurrents between individuals, whether they are aware of them or are unconscious of them, often spill out like a flood from which there is no escaping. If only individuals could foresee the ending from the beginning and not engage. For Jake and Deborah, that is impossible.
H20 is at 59E59 Theaters until December 13.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0736918973][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0060652926][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1880399202]