OnStage Los Angeles Guest Critic
The Redeeming Power of Friendship
‘Dry Land,’ a Drama on Teen Sexuality by Ruby Rae Spiegel
Legendary director Peter Brook said that walking across a stage can be an act of theatre. His thesis is put to the test in the LA premiere of Ruby Rae Spiegel’s play “Dry Land”, especially in a seven-minute scene that consists of nothing more than a janitor mopping the floor in a girl’s locker room—never uttering a word. The audience in the The Echo Theatre sat rapt through this scene last night on the edge of their seats, jaws dropped open, riveted to every motion the janitor made—proof that this production, at least, upholds Mr. Brook’s thesis and carries his high standard.
Why this scene is so effective, I believe, can only be understood in context. It follows one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever witnessed onstage.
The play centers on the tiled expanse of a locker room of a girl’s swim team in an ugly yet non-descript high school somewhere in Florida. Kudos to set designer Amanda Knehans who manages cleverly to transform the stage into a hideous expanse of missing linoleum flooring complete with center drain hole, blue “team spirit whoosh” paint job, benches, metal trash can, posters and hints of mold and institutional decrepitude.
The ambience is completed with a pop music overlay, garish fluorescent lighting (designed by Justin Huen) and underwater bubbling (sound design by Jeff Gardner), like when someone pushes you underwater. Each scene is separated by darkness and the sudden end of the pop music synchronized with the sound of a switch throwing on a bank of metal halide lights, and a return to the intensely bright lighting. This creates a dramatic shift that is powerful both visually and aurally.
Scene one opens with Amy (played by Teagan Rose) inviting team member Ester (Connor Kelly-Eiding) to punch her in the stomach. At first, Amy is disappointed at the weakness of the blows. As the punches escalate in intensity and the “I-dare-you” banter raises the stakes, we make out the lines of their relationship: Amy is the high status “is that all you got?” tough girl and Ester is the low status submissive but willing dupe. The polarity of their characters, and the way they transform and ultimately switch places through the course of the play, is the architecture of tension and compression that holds the piece together.
The dialogue is pithy, witty teenage vernacular throughout. Amy: “One time this boy put his mouth on my vagina and then when he kissed me he tasted like sour milk. So I guess I taste like sour milk, which in a way kind of makes sense.” Ester: “Yeah?” Amy: “I think so. One of my English teachers in middle school called me ‘acerbic’.”
Spicing the stories about menstrual periods, gayness and lesbianism, swimming and their sexual history (or lack thereof), are jokes, for example the one Amy tells. “A zoophile, a sadist, a murderer, a necrophile and a masochist meet a cat…” After Amy sends Ester on a shopping errand and she returns with detergent and drain degreaser, we discover the reason for the chemicals and the blows: Amy is pregnant and, after googling for a solution, is trying various do-it-yourself abortion techniques.
The key to the success of this play is simple—not easy, but simple: we (the audience) must care deeply about Amy’s plight. Caring is made more difficult by Amy’s tough act and braggadocio and unless we can somehow sense her vulnerability, all is lost. This is where Teagan Rose provides the heart of this LA production. While giving Amy an impenetrable titanium veneer, Teagan subtly and non-verbally communicates Amy’s plight and cry for help. She does this despite her harsh and seemingly unforgivable dissing of Ester in front of Amy’s “best friend” Reba (Jenny Soo) where Amy accuses Ester, in a moment that is both a revelation and a betrayal, of being in love with her.
Turnabout is fair play. After Amy admits confidentially to Ester that what she really wants to do is to write, Reba, in a later scene, tells Ester how everyone in her English class hated Amy’s poems and knew that Amy was the worst writer in the class. Amy listens, trying to smile—and we see and feel the crack in the titanium. Ester’s punching gets harder and the pain Amy feels (who plays the masochist in her own joke) escalates, despite trying to numb the pain with shots of vodka before asking to be punched again.
When Ester watches Amy return from the seemingly irreparable breach in their friendship, Ester gives her a gift of reconciliation: a cookie wrapped in cellophane from the vending machine. Amy accepts it and, a moment later, goes down on the floor in agony. The scene that follows is as powerful onstage, and as frightening, as Oedipus putting out his own eyes with a knife. Warning: this play is not for you if you get queasy easily. I won’t say more about this except that both Teagan and Connor play the subtlety and the power of this scene perfectly. As Amy bleeds and screams, Ester tries to calm her down with a story of how she retrieved a watermelon from the bottom of the swimming pool.
Enter the Janitor.
Director Alana Dietze says: “My favorite theatre experiences are ones where you don’t know what to expect. But I think they can expect to see something that will make them uncomfortable in a good way.” Certainly Ms. Dietze has served up a theatre experience where I did not know what to expect and that made me about as uncomfortable as I’ve ever felt in a theatre space. What I gained was an experience of raw emotional intensity a teenage girl feels in a terrifying world where your life may suddenly depend on the power of your friendship.
Continues Friday & Saturday at 8:00PM and Sunday 4 & 7PM through May 21, 2016.
The Echo Theater Company, 3269 Casitas Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90039
For reservations, call (310) 307-3753a or visit online http://www.echotheatercompany.com