Explicit and harrowing handshakes with death
Ravenhill’s latest dives off the deep end
BY JERRY TALLMER | Most plays in the English language have a certain formal structure. There are so many characters — anywhere from just one to, oh maybe 30 or 40. Each character has a name or a descriptive tag or both (Editor Webb — Candida, the minister’s wife — Young Abe Lincoln), and the words or thoughts or both are ascribed to one or another of these characters or, as it may be, more than one.
Not in the case of Mark Ravenhill. Or at least not in the case of 46-year-old British playwright Mark Ravenhill’s passionate yet cynical “pool (no water),” which — lower case and all, but with five life-sized, flesh-and-blood actors articulating now this person, now that one, as if by roll of the dice (ah there, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!) — is receiving its New York premiere.
One might think that this strip tease, bare-bones aspect of a play gunning for public consumption might be for shock effect, and one might be right. The last time we had something of Ravenhill’s in these parts was 12 years ago at East 4th Street’s New York Theatre Workshop, and the work being shopped bore the in-your-face title, “Shopping and Fucking.”
To tell the truth, nothing that happened on stage with his “S&F” was — to my best memory — as inflammatory as that titular come-on. But then, a New York audience that had survived Michael McClure’s climactically explicit but beautiful 1965 “The Beard” — Billy the Kid pleasuring Jean Harlow — can survive anything.
Actually, at least in the reading of this new entry of Ravenhill’s, sex plays only a supporting role to Death here, and make that a capital D.
Sex and Death, linked unwillingly. Isn’t that what Freud and everybody since Freud has been telling us down through the decades?
In “pool (no water),” there are two explicit and harrowing handshakes with death — one from impact of body on concrete where the water should be, the other, slower and crueler, by way of cancer — but the main intrusion of sex here is only via back references to the age of AIDS. (Dispatches from London tell us that the HIV-positive Ravenhill had a partner who died of AIDS.)
This, then, is a play about Death and sex, to reverse the usual order — and envy and pandering and free-loading and flattery and ass-kissing and art world gamesmanship and phoniness and a great deal else of the kind that’s familiar to any and all who’ve ever been there or near there. I am led to think, not for the first time, of Paul Klee’s great etching of two honorable gentlemen bowing to one another, each trying to get his nose closer to the ground.
But let us be fair: “pool (no water)” is indeed also something of a white-hot 60-minute poem of illusion and disillusion in which the troubled and/or scornful voices, mainly female, shift from one nameless character — and one unidentified actor or actress — to another.
With one exception. One voice has a name. It is that of Sally, the adored and scorned Lady Bountiful, who built the pool for herself and her houseguests, but never got to use it because the cancer took her first.
The real-life individual who holds this whole complicated dramatic machinery together is the show’s director, an agreeably zaftig young woman named Ianthe (pronounced Yon-tee) Demos, the idealistic offspring of a Greek father who is a photographer and a Dutch mother who is merely “a wonder woman.”
The actors are all members of the One Year Lease Theatre Company — a Greek-Australian-New Zealand-U.S, combo founded and run by Demos, Nick Flint, Christina Bennett Lind, Richard Saudek, Christopher Baker and Estelle Bajou.
Demos has never met Ravenhill, has never talked with him — “but I fell in love with ‘pool (no water)’ at a reading of it in 2008, and have been pursuing the rights ever since.”
The only command of the absentee (but in Britain, very busy) playwright is, she says, that this is a play for four or more performers — “to indicate,” she supposes, “that it is never to be done as a monologue.”
How do you, as a director, know which actor or actress is to speak which part — that is to say, which words — at any given time?
“Good question. Lots of trial and error. We have five actors, each of whom takes on the role of Sally at one time or another.”
Sounds like chaos.
“It is chaos, until we find the right one.”
The woman who dives in Sally’s pool is a central figure without a name. The other five people saw it happen — “and it’s how they handle this experience that makes it one long linear poem — one long story in time, transformed by each individual.”
Also, how they handle envy?
“Yeah, emotions we don’t often think about, like envy. But we all know them.”
Demos divides her life between northern Greece, London and Downtown New York — where, for Columbia Artists, she manages several dance groups.
“I say I’m Greek, but my home is New York right now.”
Is she at home with the Old Greeks — Sophocles, Euripides, that whole gang?
“Oh yes.” With a laugh: “I’ve done my share” — including direction of the tripartite “Oresteia” of Aeschylus for Crystal Field at Theater for the New City, almost directly across First Avenue from where someone, at 9th Space, through May 26, will be swan diving nightly into a cement-based pool with no…WHAT IS SHE…A POOL WITH NO…WHAT IS SHE DOING? WATCH OUT!!!
Written by Mark Ravenhill
Directed by Ianthe Demos
Through May 26
At 9th Space, inside PS 122 (150 1st Ave., at 9th St.)
Wed.-Sat. at 7:30pm; matinees, Sat. & Sun. at 2:30pm
Additional performance, Tues., May 22 at 7:30pm
For tickets ($25), visit 9thspace.org or call 212-352-3101
For info: oneyearlease.org