Play balances speculation with comedy in Toronto
Believable science fiction is difficult to achieve on stage, a fact acknowledged by Eric Helle, director of Seven Siblings Theatre’s production of From The Water, which is now playing at the Tarragon Extraspace. Much of science fiction relies on the ability to create believable worlds and advanced technology, something that tends to require an enormous effects budget. Low-budget theatre knows it can’t really compare, so it has to concentrate its efforts elsewhere. Anyone who’s a fan of Star Trek: The Original Series and its cardboard sets, however, knows that it’s the characters and ideas that really matter in the long run. In these ways, From The Water largely succeeds in captivating our imaginations.
A brief warning: the show begins with some unusually intense hazer that eventually dissipates, but made me feel seriously ill during the pre-show and the first twenty minutes of the play; if you are affected by stage haze, enter the theatre as close to curtain as possible.
The play imagines an alternate present where the world has been brought to a crisis point by invading creatures. They arrive during “Downfalls,” and thousands upon thousands of people disappear. There are blackouts, people have started descending into underground bunkers, and alcohol is a precious commodity.
Playwright Will King also stars as Peter, a 24-year-old who’s drifting through life a bit aimlessly until he finds his purpose as a “Match” – those who are able to donate spinal fluid, or “Water,” to create cloned soldiers to fight in the war. The only problem is, as his mother Alex (Anna Silvija Broks) says, wars used to be about wanting things, and the creatures don’t seem to want anything; or, at least, nobody can communicate with them to find out.
The heart of King’s play is the relationship between mother and son. It’s nuanced, specific, and rich, and it outstrips by far the rest of the world-building. It’s no wonder that most of what we see of the world is a perfectly ordinary living room set (Stephen King), because this is the world that matters. The effects are also limited and mostly suggested by light and sound, though there is some visceral stage violence (Nate Bitton) and realistic blood, which add to the atmosphere.
Alex’s attempts to have one last, normal night before Peter leaves to fulfill his duty, and later, her reaction to a newborn clone of her son, who only knows the basics of Peter’s existence and that he’s supposed to love her, are complex and heartbreaking. Outwardly sardonic yet fiercely protective in an instant, she’s a woman at the end of her rope, but that rope happens to be made of steel. King does a fantastic job with both the quietly determined original Peter and his wide-eyed clone self, fascinated with the world and humanity’s nuances, but without the hang of either.
The other characters, a woman, Ava (Hilary Wirachawski), who wants to communicate with the creatures and versions of the doctor who began the “Water” process (Shawn Lall), are interesting conceptually and well-acted, but feel like interruptions to the vital mother-son story, which has its own effective narrative arc. There’s a benefit to keeping some things shrouded in mystery to maintain audience interest, but neither figure gets beyond cipher or idea-vehicle. In particular, the machine Ava introduces near the end is a kind of late-stage MacGuffin, and its existence doesn’t feel earned; perhaps this calls for a two-act version of the now 90-minute play.
For a play about the end of the world as we know it, oddly, the script’s biggest success might be its moments of comedy. One line about the awkwardness of continuing to use a product name after the mass disappearances hits an absolutely perfect note of modern social commentary. Clone Peter’s adjustment to the world is as endearing as Data’s, and there are also a few sci-fi Easter eggs for the die-hard fan.
The more portentous, “what does it mean to be human” stuff is a little more awkward, displayed much more movingly in what we intuit from moments between Peter and his mother than in the direct speeches and pronouncements, and the later screaming confrontations. Fittingly, the sci-fi play works best when it’s working on a human scale…even if one of those humans is a clone.
- From The Water plays until December 16, 2018 at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace (30 Bridgman Avenue).
- Shows run Saturday at 2:30 and 8:00PM, and Sunday at 2:30PM.
- Tickets are $17-32 and can be purchased online, by calling 416-531-1827, or in person at the Tarragon Box Office.
- Warnings: The show includes stage violence, gunshots, haze, e-cigarettes, and strong language.
Photo of Will King by Will King