Poised uneasily but (mostly) fruitfully at the intersection(s) of theater, activism, seminar, and interactive science museum exhibit, (Not) Water is an unwieldy and deliberately provocative object. Obsessively and recursively about its own process, it’s a making-of documentary that swallows its own tail to subsume the thing being made (can you really go behind the scenes of a thing whose narrative is its process?). It’s largely about its own impossibility, its own anxieties and constant attempts to grapple with the vastness of its own scope–the vastness of water and our planet’s fraught dependence on it. (Not) Water is, of course, about water, and it’s embedded (both physically and chronologically; the show shares its space with the art installations) in a month-long art exhibit and a broad-ranging series of expeditions, conversations, and thematically linked works-in-progress also about, engaged with, investigating, and reckoning with our society’s relationship to water. Most of the days throughout the run feature, in addition to gallery hours and a performance, one to four additional events, in the space and elsewhere throughout the city; the play is at the center, but it doesn’t, and isn’t meant to, stand alone.
One of (Not) Water’s impossibilities is trying to grasp in what way it’s about water: the scarcity of it, the necessity of it, the poetry of it, the terrifying power of it; the relationship to it of an individual or a community or the world; the politics of it or the aesthetics; conservation or profligacy; water quality versus water quantity; problems with solutions and problems that only inspire panic. As the designer character Ethan says, “It’s a project about the environment. It’s about water. And hubris. And denial And neglect And global warming And death And fear And electrolytes….” And on and on. It’s daunting and overwhelming the moment you start thinking about it–and playwright Sheila Callaghan and director Daniella Topol have been grappling with this project for a decade.
Faced with the urgency and the immeasurable, inconceivable scale of such a project; faced with a decade of seeking and finding and losing the resources necessary to make such a piece; faced with a growing sense that the two choices are the impossible, daunting macro scale encompassing the entire globe or the perhaps unhelpfully local but graspable micro scale of an hour in the theater–Callaghan and Topol make both choices wherever possible. On the micro scale, they write themselves (Not-Sheila, played by April Matthis, and DT, played by Polly Lee) and then their collaborators (a slate of designers played by Rebecca Hart, Mike Shapiro, Ethan Hova, and Carmen M. Herlihy, and New Georges artistic director Susan Bernfield, also played by Hart), and their process (their arguments, their dead ends, their “we really like this bit but we don’t know what to do with it” moments) into the heart of the piece. From that framework, they send tendrils out to investigate all sorts of angles on the macro, some more productive (Rachel’s monologue, of a woman trapped on a roof in Hurricane Katrina; Bernfield’s story from Hurricane Sandy; an interview with a climate scientist; Not-Sheila’s story of trying to be more conscious of her own water usage and failing) than others (a scene featuring a Norwegian couple working through their relationship while being profligate with water; an oddly charming but slightly forced singing mop sequence). But while that not-choosing opens up a world of possibilities, it also works as a way to keep side-stepping the stakes of the piece, to face them obliquely rather than head-on.
And then the play interrupts its patchwork and partial self, splits the audience into two alternative near-future post-hurricane urban scenarios, and becomes just for a moment a frighteningly realistic, discomfitingly immersive, glimpse into a more focused and topical, more explicitly political and narrative, thing it could have been. In one, a scientist (Herlihy) explains a new emergency water-filtration system in a public restroom; in the other, a would-be food entrepreneur (Shapiro) teaches an audience lured in by a promise of free food about his revolutionary new insect-based protein source.
(Not) Water is by turns poetic, immersive, maddening, opaque, luminous, clever, and heartbreaking. It doesn’t make a satisfying whole–by definition; it’s permanently, and, yes, sometimes frustratingly incomplete. It’s intentionally unfinished, perhaps even unfinishable. But it has to be; any narrative satisfaction in a piece like this, anything hinting at resolution, would be false comfort. I don’t know if that message is going to inspire either contemplation or action in the audience, but at its best, (Not) Water and the installations and events surrounding it promise to commence conversations, to force us to continually acknowledge the issues it broaches.