Body of Water (San Francisco)
By Harry Duke
It’s just as well that Mickey Rooney passed away earlier this year because if he’d seen what his exhortation of “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” has led to, it might have killed him. That’s not a criticism of the production covered by this review, just an acknowledgement that the times have significantly changed since Mickey and Judy got the gang together to put on a show in the old barn.
The “old barn” today is the Southside Theatre in Fort Mason and the show is “Body of Water”, an original piece and the inaugural production of the Palo Alto-based A Theatre Near U company. It’s a post-apocalyptic tale of survival and is performed by a cast who range in age from thirteen to eighteen. Oh, and it’s a musical.
Set in an isolated cabin sometime in the future, “Body of Water” is the tale of a group of young people who are sent away for safety by their parents. Society has reached a point where either you completely subscribe to the current dogma of those in power or you are lobotomized or killed. Those who resist and have fled are hunted down by “The Shepherds” and returned to face their fate. The few who have found their way to the cabin scrape by to survive and await instructions from their parents. Things quickly change when they kill one of the “shepherds” and two new escapees arrive who may or may not be what they seem. Is it safe to stay where they are or is it time to move on? Do they trust the new arrivals or follow their leader? Will they ever hear from their parents again? Is there any real hope at all?
No, this is not the stuff of typical Youth Theatre and thank you to co-directors Tanna Herr and Tony Kienitz (also co-founders of the Company) for that and for giving a group of talented young performers the opportunity to do something beyond the umpteenth version of “Bye Bye Birdie”. The book was written by Kienitz, who was savvy enough to accept input from his cast on how a teen might really say something or feel about a situation.
The show contains fifteen songs with music and lyrics by Jim Walker that echo the overall darkness of the piece. Songs such as “We Know Who You Are”, “All Fall Down” and “Alibis” stand in stark contrast to the usual happy-go-lucky fare common to musical theatre. This is Walker’s first attempt at scoring for the stage and he mostly succeeds, though several songs have too-long moments of instrumentation that deadened the action. Under the direction of Pierce Peter Brandt (and accompanied by a very good off-stage band), the vocal work done by the cast in interpreting Walker’s songs was outstanding. These kids can sing.
Choreography by Kaylie Caires was energetic and appropriately anger–based, with a lot of foot-stomping and sharp, forceful movement. There were moments that I wished the choreography were more organic to the scene, as opposed to the cast stopping, obviously moving into position, and then beginning. On the whole, though, the large-scale ensemble numbers were well done. These kids can dance.
The choreography, however, became an obstacle to those singing solos. Something was lost when it became obvious that the solo performers’ energy and focus was split between executing choreography and performing the songs. There were moments when you could see them trying so hard to hit their marks that they lost their connection to the music and lyrics. While there’s no doubt that the ability to do both should be a goal for any performer with a desire to do musical theatre, it might have been advantageous to lighten the load on them this time around.
So the cast can sing and the cast can dance, but can they act? Yes, they can. With a diverse cast of fourteen, one should expect a range of acting ability and stage presence and yes, some are stronger than others, but collectively they do a remarkable job of holding the stage and making the show their own. Each one is a distinctive character and their individual work is key to accepting the totality of their situation. These young people are doing serious work and many aspire to be professional actors. While I am loathe to single out any single performer from such a cast, I can’t resist continuing with the Mickey Rooney references and state that Shayan Hooshmand, like Rooney, is small in stature but big in the talent department. His character “Shorty” is the heart and soul of this play and Hooshmand delivers a performance that belies his thirteen years of age. Keep your eye on this kid.
For that matter, keep your eye on all of them, and keep your eye on this theatre company. If this production is any indication, A Theatre Near U may just have fired the first shot in a revolution to determine the future of Youth Theatre.