SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 12, 2013 – Jane Martin’s “H2O,” a world premiere production commissioned by the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at Shepherd University, is not only, hands down, the best play of the festival’s 2013 stanza. At turns powerful, tragic, romantic, amoral, unself-conscious and self-obsessed, this complex one-act drama and its two passionate yet oddly distant characters tumble down through the circles of a Dantesque, or perhaps even an existential hell without ever quite grasping the reasons why.
At the outset of the play, we learn that macho actor Jake (Alex Podulke), once a man of nearly no distinction, was somehow dragooned by Hollywood bigwigs to star as a mute superhero in a series of blockbuster films. Shades of young Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno (TV’s Incredible Hulk). Or, perhaps, a riff on Marvel’s blind superhero, Daredevil. The key here is that Jake has become an incredibly wealthy matinee idol who’s never had a speaking part.
His fame gets him an invitation not only to star in but to cast the players in an expensive New York production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Unstable, out of control, out of his league, and suicidal to boot, Jake surprises himself by hiring Deborah (Diane Mair)—a highly proficient yet entirely unknown young actress—to take the key role as Hamlet’s unfortunate fiancée, Ophelia.
A Christian fundamentalist, Deborah is the polar opposite of Jake. She’s stable, self-assured, energetic and professional. But, atypically, she also views theater as less a profession than a church ministry. Dedicating her acting talents to almighty God, she regards her Broadway and Off-Broadway mission as a way of following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. She, too, decides to become a fisher of men, hoping to save many a soul from the moral cesspool of New York’s theatrical establishment.
The play that arises from the often-unclear backstories of both these polar opposite characters is a marvel to behold. Each character is fully formed, yet largely unknown to us. Whether driven by demons, angels, or an odd combination of both, each character also longs to reach out and offer a redemption, of sorts, to the other, but the fierceness of their personal dogmas never allows love or closure to occur.
Jake is clearly disturbed, angry, miserable, and ultimately convinced, in spite of his impressive wealth and success, that this particular planet is not for him.
Deborah, on the other hand, has achieved technical success but not a living wage in the theatrical world, possibly due to subordinating her talents to better serve God; or, equally likely, subtly discriminated against by a theatrical community that lives in varying stages of gray morality and casual atheism.
In their own feeble way, each character attempts to “save” the other. But both are ultimately doomed to fail. Jake’s repeated invitations to Deborah to either sleep with him or marry him fall flat every time he tries. He simply cannot grasp that a committed Christian isn’t willing to dump her faith, cross the line, and join him in a suicidal orgy of debauchery and self-hate. Besides, he has needs.
Deborah, on the other hand, convinced that she and the power and mercy of Jesus can right every wrong, can’t comprehend that the Word of God can’t reach and save this wild man of the movies. For her, it simply doesn’t compute.
The dialogue in this drama is crisp, realistic, incisive, and seems to emanate from the very soul of each character. The play itself veers wildly from hilarity to tragedy, as laughter quickly changes into tears and as terms of endearment quickly lead to violence and alienation.
A cartoonist once drew a panel of a married couple seated before a marriage counselor. The caption read, “You’re not well-matched. But you’re evenly matched.” Most married couples will likely find this telling snapshot quite amusing. But for Jake and Deborah, their own situation is anything but that. They are evenly matched, too, in many ways. They are, in fact, drawn to one another by their very oppositeness.
But given their own peculiar strengths—Deborah’s passionate and absolute belief in religion vs. Jake’s passionate belief and absolute of the wrongness of his world—they continue to talk at each other rather than to one another. Neither seems able to pull the other over to his or her side. It’s as if their own intertwining lives have already been scripted by William Shakespeare, reflecting as they do the mirror actions of Ophelia and Hamlet, a provocative notion.
The find themselves falling in love in very peculiar ways. But always, on the verge of closeness, each finds a way to seriously disrespect the other. Each reaches out to the other. To a point. There is never a compromise. There has to be a winner and a loser in this setup, as neither character allows for a fair and square compromise. Neither can surrender his or her dogma to the vast gray area of love.
Things, of course, don’t end well for Jake and Deborah, but we’ll go no further lest we spoil the very unpredictable surprises in this intensely character-driven play, acted to a fare-thee-well by both Ms. Mair and Mr. Podulke in two of the best performances we’ve ever seen in a live theatrical setting.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this play, though, is, in a sense, extraneous to the action or the moral and philosophical content. Playwright Jane Martin treats Deborah, her pleasant, sparkling, yet entirely dogmatic fundamentalist Christian character like a normal person whose belief system requires you to take her—and it—seriously.
In radio, TV, film, and on stage, any committed Christian character you see is treated like the dramatic equivalent of an operatic basso buffo, a clown you know is a clown before you even see him on stage. In the performing arts, for at least two generations running now, committed Christian characters are always two-dimensional, like other standard stick figures such as wealthy tycoons and Republicans. None of these are taken seriously, and are treated instead, for the most part, as Neanderthals or cretins to be ridiculed and removed from public discourse or recognition.
We have no clue as to this playwright’s religious or secular beliefs, if any. But she breaks the mold in this play by treating the very Christian Deborah as a genuinely complex human being whose life and beliefs require your respect and attention. In 2013, this is, sad to say, breathtakingly innovative. It’s also one of the keys reasons why this play is so moving and effective, so completely and entirely unforgettable.
The playwright doesn’t let the audience off the hook when it comes to Deborah. By forcing everyone to take her Christian character seriously, Ms. Martin enables the audience to explore personal, philosophical, and moral paths and dilemmas that have largely disappeared from serious public discourse since roughly 1968. That is a huge intellectual plus, whether you’re actually in Deborah’s Christian corner or not.
Perhaps not everyone will love and admire this play the way we do. But they won’t long forget it, its characters, the actors who brilliantly portray them, or the bracing conversations we might all be able to have once again after we’ve taken in Jane Martin’s newest play.
If you’re interested in a ticket to this intense plus or minus 90 minutes of theater, we’d advise you to link to CATF’s website now and get in the queue. This is good stuff, period. It’s why we go to the theater and it’s the kind of magic we’re hoping will happen.
Rating: **** (Four stars out of four)
Postscript: A word about the playwright. John Jorry, whose brilliant yet spare direction of Diane Mair and Alex Podulke is instrumental in this production’s success, has directed other Jane Martin plays previously. Intriguingly, however, no one, apparently, has ever met Ms. Martin. In part, this has led to persistent rumors that she is, in fact, Mr. Jorry’s alter ego. Mr. Jorry himself steadfastly will not say.
The situation here is not without precedent. Elusive novelists like J.D. Salinger come to mind, but his existence has at least been clearly documented. More mysterious are “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” author B. Traven, who claimed to have been born in Chicago but was likely the German-born Pole Otto Feige; or that favorite novelist of academia, Thomas Pynchon who possesses a full biography on Wikipedia and elsewhere without, apparently, ever having endured a confirmed sighting in the wild.
This writer actually wrote a doctoral dissertation on Traven, who died, apparently under that name, in Mexico in 1969, a country where he became an esteemed citizen yet was rarely if ever seen. Pynchon, on the other hand, has long been rumored to be the alter-ego of Salinger himself. That’s a good story, save for one thing: Mr. Pynchon continues to publish esoterica even though Salinger departed this earthly sphere quite some time ago.
With regard to the persistent John Jorry/Jane Martin rumor, we’re essentially satisfied to leave it alone, even though solving the puzzle might be regarded in some circles as a journalistic coup.
The elusive Traven, who hid out for years at least partially for political reasons (he was a genuine anarchist), routinely turned away all interview requests, insisting that readers could know him through his books. Perhaps this also reflects the attitude of the playwright who authored “H2O.”
If Jane Martin or “Jane Martin” wishes to be known only through her work, so be it. Sure, it would be swell to be able to solve the mystery. But why obsess on that when we can obsess on this author’s wondrous new play instead?
Speaking of which, here’s a video, borrowed from CATF’s website, in which Mr. Jorry discusses Ms. Martin’s play.
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