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Performance Review:

"BREATHING UNDERWATER," Running With Scissors at the Storefront Theater

BY LUCIA MAURO

This past summer, Running With Scissors – an imaginative collective of artists who favor multidisciplinary performances – premiered "Breathing Underwater" at Theater on the Lake. The play’s aquatic theme, reinforced by writer Maia Morgan’s story of a distraught middle-aged doctor’s attempt to drown himself in Lake Michigan before he is rescued by a mysterious elderly woman, was naturally tailored to the theater’s original setting at Fullerton beach.

So when the company was invited by the City of Chicago’s Storefront Theater to remount the show at its Loop location, a new challenge arose: How does the work retain its immediacy and relevancy – especially in respect to its historic links to the Theater on the Lake building’s former role as a Fresh Air Sanitarium for underprivileged children in the early part of the 20th century – in a space that’s obviously not surrounded by water?

On the one hand, this collaborative 60-minute fairytale combining puppetry, text and movement does not lose its timeless message of overcoming self-doubts and striving to heal oneself and others amid devastating emotional pain. Therefore, its central scenes between the old woman sea sprite/sage Miranda (played with feisty wit by Lindsay Porter) and the psychologically dejected Neil (Terry Hamilton as an empathetic everyman) continue to make the greatest impact. Yet references to the Fresh Air Sanitarium – while appropriate for the "life breath" theme of the play – feel disconnected from the main plot.

Director Ann Boyd, however, has successfully pruned the work’s extraneous and overwrought sea nymph segments. And she has more clearly defined the pivotal character of the Siren – portrayed as a sensual Grim Reaper by Demetria Thomas in the performance I attended (Alison Halstead originated the role). And the whole production, while still laborious in parts (especially scenes of Neil’s puppet self), has a tighter and more unified shape.

Heather Hartley endows the Wind with a mischievously determined sense of justice; and Morgan and puppet designer Cynthia Von Orthal shine in multiple roles. Musical director Shana Harvey provides the ethereal vocals, accompanied by water-filled glasses that serve as chimes. Cecil Averett’s sound design takes on intriguing otherworldly tonalities, and Sue Haas’ breezy pale-blue costumes give the actors an airborn lightness.

Running With Scissors’ production of "Breathing Underwater" runs through September 29 at the Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph. Tickets: $15. Call 312-742-TIXS or log onto www.rwscissors.org.
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