This eerie, surreal tale of what comes crawling out of the ground lights up the theater at 59E59.
Photo by Hunter Canning
Ask most American theatergoers to imagine their idea of the underworld, and not many are likely to come up with a high school in the desert in the middle of Australia. Yet that is exactly what Aussie-born playwright Alexandra Collier presents to her audiences with Underland, a play in which the only thing scarier than the mysterious quarry is the crocodiles that come prowling out of it during droughts. And there's always a drought.
15-year-old students Ruth and Violet are regular troublemakers dealing with the influence of an optimistic new teacher, Miss Harmony, when a far more interesting visitor arrives. Climbing out of the "hole to China" that the girls once dug in the schoolyard is Japanese businessman Taka, who himself is trying to escape a sort of hell. But when the crocs come out and the irritable gym teacher starts making suspicious moves, is anyone really safe from what's lurking just outside of town?
Underland is a tale about how everyday lives can resemble our most horrific images of hell, whether it's the endless dryness and red earth of middle Australia or the rigidly programmed schedule of a Tokyo businessman. With an unchanging and non-naturalistic set, the eerie world of the quarry and the town are called into being through language alone, from the hunger of the land to the lurking crocodiles. Cleverly mixing surreal dangers with the painfully everyday world of ditching class and running into your teachers out in the real world, the play constantly maintains the feeling that something is just off.
This is done both through the obvious plot devices, such as a Japanese man crawling through the earth to Australia, and in smaller elements such as the one-wheeled bicycles that Mrs. Butterfat keeps on hand. Navigating this world takes some skill, as we discover through the character of Miss Harmony. And yet, while she is the newcomer to town and her arrival kicks off the story, we don't primarily witness events from her point of view. Instead, we become part of the town itself.
One of the greatest achievements of this play is its realistic, believable teenage girl characters who are relatable to audiences of all ages and drive the story without simply becoming plot devices. Violet (Angeliea Stark) and Ruth (Kiley Lotz) alternate between touching moments of friendship and the cruelty and wildness of teenagers, their relationship holding the rest of the play together. On the other end of the spectrum is Taka (Daniel K. Isaac), whose limited English vocabulary immediately creates a barrier between him and the rest of the cast, and yet he (and his beloved Tamagotchi) still give an immensely sympathetic performance as they search for a way back home.
Annie Golden of Orange is the New Black fame is a star performer, imbuing the widowed Mrs. Butterfat—who constantly talks both about and to "the late Mr. Butterfat"—with a charm and energy that completely sells the bizarre character. Rounding out the cast is the earnest, unassuming Miss Harmony (Georgia Cohen) and the strange and sinister Mr. Brown (Jens Rasmussen), whose motivations are never truly understood. And yet, in a town filled with crocs and holes to another world, it is other people who prove to be the most dangerous.
This performance of Underland will leave you uneasy and questioning, as casualties pile up and any hope of escape grows ever more tenuous. Without any changes in scenery, the boundary between the quarry and the "safer" areas grows murky, and we are never entirely sure where we are.
What we do know, however, is that this is a place where the earth is red, illicit drugs are easily acquired and crocs could grab you off the street at any moment. How's that for an underworld?
Underland plays at 59E59 through April 25.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.