Editors' pick

Voices Underwater

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Editorial Review

Nelson Pressley reviews Rorschach Theatre’s ‘Voices Underwater’

By Nelson Pressley
Thursday, March 10, 8:12 PM

Everybody gets wet in Abi Basch’s “Voices Underwater,” a lyrical ghost story involving a flood tide of Civil War history. A young couple — white woman, black man — arrive late one rainy night to visit a creepy old Alabama plantation house that’s been in her family. You bet it’s haunted.

The atmospherics that Rorschach Theatre applies to this sopping saga are effectively Gothic. Rorschach — an inventive troupe that has long made a virtue of producing in different spaces — is now operating in the small National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts theater (you get there through the back door of the Georgetown Lutheran Church). Once in, the audience is guided down narrow hallways illuminated by dim electric candlelight into the theater, where patrons are free to examine the piles of stuff on the cluttered attic set — dusty books, old milk cans, etc.

The sound of falling rain rarely slacks off in Jenny McConnell Frederick’s wonderfully moody production, which envelops the audience in classic haunted-house style. Darkness is common — scenes are sometimes illuminated by a single candle — and voices occasionally emanate from those hallways behind the seats.

Basch’s play certainly invites such theatrics. It opens with an angry ghost named Jennie, the venomous, conflicted daughter of a Ku Klux Klan member, and she marauds around in the attic even as the half-soaked couple, Emma and Franklin, take refuge from the storm.

This Alabama attic is no place to find shelter from the legacy of slavery, of course, and Basch methodically tightens connections between these figures. Jennie, played by Clementine Thomas with the glowing intensity of the genuinely bedeviled, spits out speeches that exhume suppressed desires and violent memories. Franklin (a relaxed Ricardo Frederick Evans) is laconic to a fault, in Emma’s view, and Kari Ginsburg brings a needy urgency to Emma as she presses Franklin to open up about the past and present.

Evans also plays as a kid breaking free during the Civil War, while Ginsburg portrays a young girl encountering Jennie in the 1920s — doubling called for by Basch that nicely amplifies the characters of Franklin and Emma. The play tips out of balance, though, with a character named Albert, a Union soldier played by Julie Garner. That’s not a cross-gender casting stunt, yet Albert’s secret is so tantalizing that it becomes not a thematic complement but the most pressing mystery of the night — surely not what Basch was after.

So the show leaks in more ways than one by the end, some distracting and some impressive (with the onstage water management by set designer David C. Ghatan being especially deft). But the stormy production certainly makes a splash.

By Abi Basch. Directed by Jenny McConnell Frederick. Lights, Andrew F. Griffin; costumes, Lynly Saunders; sound, Nicole Martin; props, Lauren Cucarola. About 90 minutes.

Rorschach Theatre performs 'Voices Underwater'

By Stephanie Merry
Thursday, March 3, 2011

For some small theater companies on a shoestring budget, a script populated with ghosts, one of whom springs a leak onstage, might be a nonstarter. But Rorschach Theatre doesn't shy away from such a challenge.

The adventurous troupe returns after an 18-month hiatus with Abi Basch's "Voices Underwater," a relationship tale that doubles as a ghost story. It was the play's creative challenges that appealed to Rorschach founders and artistic directors Jenny McConnell Frederick and Randy Baker.

"The first time I read this play, I thought, 'Wow, this is impossible,' " Frederick says. "And that's what's kind of great about it." Achieving the unimaginable has been a focus throughout the group's 10-year history, which has included a zombie take on Shakespeare and a play with characters that included a cat and the moon.

"I think we embrace the impossible," Frederick says. "Even from the beginning, we did a bunch of shows with 15 or 20 characters. And I hear playwrights all the time who say, 'No one will produce my play because it has 15 characters.' But we do that at the drop of a hat."

Yet a decade on the scene begged for a philosophical reassessment of priorities, and the break gave the group a chance to decide where Rorschach should go next.

"We focus on the idea of epic theater on a shoestring," Baker says. Beyond that, the company seeks to immerse audiences in the action by using creative venues. "Rather than have a fixed space, we wanted to find a space unique to each show," Baker says.

In the case of "Voices Underwater," the venue is a theater in the basement of a church, which will be transformed into a haunted house of sorts. The story follows an interracial couple at a crossroads who take refuge in the attic of an old house during a storm, only to find that ghosts - and secrets - surround them.

To get to the attic, audience members will journey through passageways filled with old objects. Some of the seating will be on the stage and crafted from old boxes and trunks. The idea, Baker says, is that the audience's and the actors' worlds bleed into each other.

Theatergoers can also have a more hands-on experience before and after the show by sifting through the set and examining props as a way to uncover secrets that aren't divulged during the play.

"Usually there's a lot of 'stay back, don't touch that,' and we want to go the other direction and let people walk around and explore the pieces of the story," Frederick says, comparing the theatrical scavenger hunt to the deleted scenes on a DVD.

It circles back to the group's mission.

"We're always looking to find magic in rough spaces," Baker says.

More important, though, through this play Rorschach aims to show that the otherworldly is relatable. "At the heart of it," Baker says, "there's a pretty simple relationship story. It's really just about a young couple trying to make it."