Review: “(Not) Water”

Asya Danilova

  • OnStage Associate New York Theatre Critic

An immersive meta-theatrical journey, which can appear shallow as a puddle or deep as an ocean, depending on how you look at it     

A sprinkle of water-related jokes, or the deep devastation of a girl sitting on the roof of her building after hurricane Katrina and watching a neighbor’s body float by? Not Sheila (April Matthis) and DT (Polly Lee), step in for co-creators of (Not) Water, and try do decide what is the best way to start their epic immersive play about the relationship between humans and the element. Matthis portrays the playwright Sheila Callaghan, and Lee plays the director Daniella Topol as they brainstorm the ideas, apply for residency at different theaters, and ideate with the team of designers. 

The audience, seated in a big circle, gets to witness creative and administrative processes acted out, as well as participate. From time to time a stagehand gives a random audience member a newspaper, from which they read out loud, usually news reports about natural disasters involving water. Not Sheila and DT feel the increasing pressure of responsibility for humanity but struggle to communicate their vast ideas to the creative team and the producer. They want their show to be “The conversation about water. The ways we control it. The ways it controls us”, and “How irresponsibly we treat it and how scared we are”, and also “Like Sleep No More but for the environment”.  
In a sense (Not) Water has all of that yet, at the same time, it never becomes the show that they describe. As Not Sheila and DT develop their project for almost a decade, we get to see an Irish girl at the bar during the storm, two Norwegian men drinking water on a boat, projected photographs of people in the flooded areas, and a singing mop floating in the air and more. 

These “notes on water” are amusing at times but rather shallow. The ideas keep piling up but never quite develop. As the team tries to find the “tiniest myths”, and to fill them with ecological, political and cosmic discourse around water, I start to suspect that the piece is not about what they say it is and water is just a handle for the conversation, hence the “not” in the title. The further it goes the more it resembles a mockery of young creatives, taking upon themselves an ambition to revolutionize the theater and save the world. 

The structure of (Not) Water gets complicated even further when the audience, divided in two groups, gets to see two solo shows running simultaneously in separate rooms. One story is told by a scientist who purifies water while the other one, which I saw, is about a crafty cook (Mike Shapiro) trying to avoid starvation by making tiny bites of cellulose and one other ingredient. To make them taste like food, the former dishwasher of a flooded restaurant created a scent of “mother’s pancakes”, which the volunteers can experience.    

It is difficult to sink into theatrical convention of perceiving the happening as if it could be real. I simply lost my appetite, my desire to listen to somebody else’s story, and to trust after other stories were unfolded in front of me and then dismissed by Not Sheila and DT.  

The meta-theatre prelude and a solo-show are followed by an art installation, which the audience members are encouraged to perceive lying down on inflatable mattresses. Above us is the hull of a boat in a sea of plastic bottles, and a projection resembling a water surface is dancing across celling. This meditative experience is reminiscent of Pipilotti Rist’s Pixel Forest, which was on view in the New Museum last fall.                

A divine, Siri-like voice of Water wakes you up. An aquarium filled with notes is passed around and each person fishes one out. Everybody was asked to write down their vivid memory of water upon entering the theater in the beginning, and now it’s time for them to be read. This is the warmest and most reassuring moment of the play. We leave with a notion that each of us is a storyteller and own “tiniest myth”. 

As a show about the human relationship with the water, (Not) Water is all over the place, very ambitious but not satisfying. As the show about the theater and storytelling, it is actually brilliant. It starts with you writing down your personal story and sending it to the unknown, like a message in the bottle. Then you get to witness a chain of pathetic attempts of a writer and a director to create a narrative out of real life issues and events. After watching Not Sheila and DT struggle for a while, you realize that you can’t trust the character, even played by a talented actor, or the bodiless voice of an electronic ocean either. 

When your own story, and the stories of other audience members are finally voiced, it truly feels like quenching your thirst. The theatrical evening makes a gigantic loop and brings you back to where you started, to your memory. Only now it’s not merely a herbarium memorabilia, but a seed that can grow into a story and only you can tell it. Just make sure to water it regularly. 

(Not) Water runs at the 3LD Art & Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street, through June 30th. The running time is approximately 100 minutes with no intermission. Performances are: Thu 6/22, Sat 6/24, Tue 6/27, Thu 6/29 & Fri 6/30 at 7:30pm; Tue 6/20, Wed 6/21 & Wed 6/28 at 8:30pm; Fri 6/23 at 9pm; Wed 6/14, Sun 6/18 & Fri 6/23; Sun 6/11 at 5pm; Sun 6/25 at 12:30pm. Tickets ($20-$45) and can be purchased at or
(Not) Water is co-conceived by Sheila Callaghan and Daniella Topol, written by Sheila Callaghan. It is directed by Daniella Topol, produced by New Georges as part of Works On Water, a month-long, multidisciplinary art event that presents multiple artistic perspectives on water in a global context.  

The design team includes Deb O, Ari Fulton, Barbara Samuels, Broken Chord Collective, and Cory Einbinder, science dramaturgy by Guerilla Science.

The cast is Rebecca Hart, Carmen M. Herlihy, Ethan Hova, Polly Lee, April Matthis, and Mike Shapiro. Photo by Marina McClure


Asya Danilova is a New York based photographer and behind-the-scenes videographer for film and theater. She started a theater review blog, New Show New York, because of her passion for theater and background in art and film criticism. What began as a hobby quickly became an important means of expression. Her goal as a writer is to bring more young audiences to the theater.