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Theater/Performance Review:

"BREATHING UNDERWATER," Running With Scissors at Theater on the Lake

BY LUCIA MAURO

As its name implies, Running With Scissors is not afraid to take risks. And the two-year-old collaborative performance company, which made its debut with a monumental adaptation of Tom Spanbauer’s "The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon," is quickly carving a unique niche for itself – combining the insightful puppetry associated with Redmoon and the bold physicality and literary spirit of Lookingglass. But Running With Scissors also attempts to be a dance troupe, a visual-art collective and an incubator for original storytelling works.

So they’ve got a lot on their creative plates – and much of it is overflowing in the group’s latest performance piece, "Breathing Underwater," which premiered June 20-24 at Theater on the Lake. The abstracted script, written by Maia Morgan, centers on an elderly woman named Miranda Rodgers (who is part human/part sea sprite) and her subtle, quick-witted attempts to prevent a distraught middle-aged physician, Neil Abbott, from committing suicide. They meet on a pier off Lake Michigan just as Neil is about to plunge to his untimely death.

But surrounding the text is a mystical world of movement and puppetry that does not always serve the story well. In an over-long opening sequence, powder blue-clad sea nymphs and elements – nimbly portrayed by Heather Hartley, Julia Neary, Alison Halstead and Cynthia Von Orthal (who also designed the exquisite puppets and masks) – seem to summon a cascading universe by partnering bowls of water. The scene, however, takes place too close to the ground. In a space as sprawling and cavernous as Theater on the Lake, most of the performers’ evocative gestures are impossible to see.

We first meet Neil as a puppet that is tossed out of his comfort zone by mischievous invisible fates. Through this hand-operated device, the artists can best illustrate Neil’s underwater adventures, including one inventive sequence in which a seahorse and various skittish fish glide past him. Yet his puppet self seems inconsequential to his real human despondency.

The most finely honed scenes are those involving the forthright but Zen-like Lindsay Porter as Miranda and a skeptical, quietly distraught Terry Hamilton as Neil. Their profound exchanges gracefully reverse the notion of doctor and patient; and illustrate the difference between a physician’s duty to merely keep people alive and to heal them.

Director Ann Boyd makes lovely use of striking suggestion and has allowed her multidisciplinary ensemble to experiment as one cohesive body. Musical director Shana Harvey provides otherworldly vocalizations while playing glasses filled with water; Peter Ksander’s lighting transforms the stage into a shadow-puppet arena with a child bounding across waves alongside a bear; and Ryan Mahoney’s elemental set design gently moves through time and space.

Overall, "Breathing Underwater" – which rings with beautiful messages about companionship, unconditional love and overcoming self-doubt – still feels like it’s being workshopped. Not all the multifaceted aspects flow smoothly together, especially those scenes tied directly to the work’s setting on Lake Michigan.
Running With Scissors tries to give audiences a sense of the theater’s history. It once served as a fresh-air sanitarium for underprivileged children during the early part of the 20th century. But those sequences, as well as an obligatory shipwreck montage, appear detached from the central story. Moreover, the aquatic connection will be less feasible when the troupe remounts the show at the Storefront Theater in the fall.

Quite intriguing, though, is the adjoining visual art installation – "Open Air 1943" -- by David deCastro and K.C. Welch. A series of hammocks arranged at geometric angles refers to the building’s history as a sanitarium and takes on both painful and liberating formations, depending on the angle from which they are viewed.

Running With Scissors consists of some of the city’s most imaginative artists. But "Breathing Underwater," although it clocks in at just over an hour, needs to be honed into a more fluid, seamlessly paced and thematically unified piece of collaborative theater. Otherwise, it runs the risk of simply being a fascinating jumble of art forms.

Running With Scissors’ production of "Breathing Underwater" will be remounted Sept. 7-30 at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. For more information, call 312-742-TIXS. For more information about Theater on the Lake’s summer season at Fullerton and Lake Shore Drive, call 312-742-7994.

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