In the first scene of Alexandra Collier's Underland, a man doubled over in pain enters and pulls two bloody teeth from his mouth. Despite being a little graphic, the scene catches your attention, raising all sorts of questions about what has caused the man's dental problems. But what it doesn't do is cue the audience into the genre of this well-acted but perplexing play, presented by terraNOVA Collective and now running at 59E59 Theaters. In fact, it isn't clear until more than halfway through the hour-and-45-minute, intermissionless performance that we are watching something akin to a sci-fi/horror flick onstage.
The protagonists of Underland's bedeviled plot are two rebellious teenage students, Violet (Angeliea Stark) and Ruth (Kiley Lotz), who long to escape from the desolation of their backwater town in central Australia. An ominous quarry nearby has inspired a spooky song ("Lo lo, hungry oh, the quarry's hungry far below"), and a rogue crocodile has been reported on the loose. Miss Harmony (Georgia Cohen) has just moved into town and started teaching alongside hardnosed gym instructor Mr. B (Jens Rasmussen) and religious-ed teacher Mrs. Butterfat (Annie Golden). Gradually it becomes apparent that Mr. B (the one who pulled out his teeth in the beginning) is a dangerous fella for a completely unexpected reason, one that will ultimately force Violet and Ruth to fight for their lives.
Had Collier stuck with this single plot line, Underland could have been a fairly entertaining high school, teenage-angst horror story. But there's an additional twist to this tale from — literally — down under. In an office in Japan, we meet overworked, bored pencil pusher Taka (Daniel K. Isaac). During break time, Taka takes a nap under his desk, where he discovers a hole in the wall that emits a strange red light. After getting pulled by some unknown force through an underground tunnel, he is spewed out into the town in central Australia, where he meets Ruth and Mrs. Butterfat. Bewildered and thirsty, he speaks in Japanese and broken English in order to communicate his desire to get back home. Will he make it?
Director Mia Rovegno approaches this bewildering plot in some genuinely interesting ways, using Burke Brown's lighting and Elisheba Ittoop's sound design to create a cinematic feel, as when Golden, in a luminous and comical performance as Mrs. Butterfat, rides a bike alongside Cohen as Miss Harmony, when suddenly Cohen seems to be pulled violently from her bike by some unseen force and drawn back with startling speed into the darkness. Interesting as that is, not all the production's elements are as well thought out, such as Gabriel Hainer Evansohn's set, a large metallic structure that resembles a barn with starlike images painted on it. The passage through which the actors enter and exit is so narrow that they have to squeeze through sideways, sometimes getting clothing snagged along the way. If the crocs don't get 'em, the set just might.
It's not entirely clear whether there is an extraterrestrial component to the story, but by the end, the play feels like it has churned out too much disbelief for an audience to suspend anyway. That's a shame too, because Golden and Isaac deliver compelling performances as two of the play's better-developed characters. Golden gives the eccentric, somewhat tedious Mrs. Butterfat an Angela Lansbury charm, and when Isaac crawls out of that unexplained hole from Japan, his convincing portrayal of a thirsty, lost soul makes your throat feel dry. Alas, he might have been better off if he had crawled back in.
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