Some (including this reviewer) have said that devised theater—theater created by the directors, performers and key designers during rehearsals—is self-indulgent, pretentious claptrap.
This negative dynamic is usually worsened by adding more and more people to the creative mix. Ominously, in Water Ways (Part One of the Elements Cycle), a production of Cleveland Public Theatre in partnership with Oberlin College and Conservatory, the primary participants are legion.
They include: 16 student performers from Oberlin, two directors, five faculty members, 13 video producers, eight choreographers, six video designers, and four usher-guides.
The result, in a stunning flash of legerdemain, is nothing short of magnificent. Taking place in five separate venues within the CPT complex (that's why you need usher-guides), this gargantuan undertaking is an explosion of inventiveness that almost always works.
But more than that, it may actually change how you view fresh water, our lifeline to survival on this tortured planet. Employing live and recorded music, dance and movement, traditional storytelling and leaps of fantasy and absurdity, this production is both emotionally invigorating and intellectually challenging.
The motivating event of the play is the fact that a lake, once enjoyed by multitudes, has now gone dry. As the public laments the loss of their water, scientists scramble to find hope in a new well. But businesses and government officials grapple over jurisdiction.
Weaving amongst them all are "water shadows," spirits who live in the water and reflect ourselves in many ways. Some of the most riveting dance numbers involve these sprites as they mirror the humans and share both their poignant water memories and their parched reality.
Unlike some devised theater productions, one is never lost in the weeds trying to follow the thread of the story. That in itself is amazing, since the audience is moved from one venue to another: surrounded by flickering videos in one room, scientists banging around in another, a vaudeville show (quite funny), and a spooky space where four people emerge from water-filled metal tubs.
One of the key questions the play asks is, "Who owns the water?" That's an important question since corporations are quickly turning water into a valuable private commodity, not a treasured public resource. For instance, bottled water is now pricier than gasoline, by the gallon. And it leaves mountains of heinous plastic waste in its profitable wake.
Amid all the dance and whirl of this muscular production, words still resonate. At one point, a thirsty woman notes, "Back then, the water dug deep into the earth." And another, remembering the miracle of bodily immersion in water says, "We would swim with our arms out, our pale arms so free and loose." It is intoned as a prayer, as if recalling an unimaginable, heavenly place.
And that is the cautionary aspect of Water Ways. It invites us to consider how to protect the watery heaven we have been given and not sell it off or pollute it into extinction. By spanning eons, from primitive water instincts to futuristic contortions, this play covers the (ahem) waterfront.
But co-directors Raymond Bobgan and Chris Seibert, and all their collaborators, have fashioned a theatrical event that engages, then delights, and then boggles the mind. You won't find that anywhere else, anytime soon.