Barret O’Brien’s “Water Made to Rise” premiered at the Historic Ashland Armory on Monday to a packed house with nary a seat to be had, a testament to the city’s commitment to the climate change conversation, as well as to its Oregon Shakespeare Festival performers. On this night, O’Brien, who is in his fifth season at the festival, is seen doing double duty as actor and playwright, and is joined by two of the festival’s finest in Daisuke Tsuji (four seasons) and Rodney Gardiner (eight seasons) as three men caught in a crisis of torrential proportions, trapped in a taproom in a giant city not unlike New York that has been totally decimated by rain and subsequent flooding.
The performance is a workshop production that sits somewhere between a staged reading and a mounted production, with evocative lighting and sound design from Tylar Riopelle and Natalie Scott. A “stage” is formatted in the round, but is all on one level, which made things a bit hard to follow but did little to dampen the spirit of the evening, thanks to a stellar bit of writing from O’Brien and exceptional acting from the troupers. O’Brien plays the role of a man who has lost his home, his wife, and most everything else he possesses to the floods, stumbling into a ginmill on what we can only surmise is a sanctified space in a building that has been spared during a recent dystopian deluge.
Here he meets Gardiner, as a man who is masquerading as the owner of the establishment for desperate reasons of his own, and Tsuji, as a tragicomedic failed ballerino with a penchant for gallows humor and a taste for Slippery Nipples — the cocktail, that is. Gardiner and O’Brien go to the alpha male mattresses in a vain attempt to make sense of an utterly impossible situation, while Tsuji is the sad clown of the piece, with chronic angina and an inability to rise above his fate.
O’Brien is a talented playwright, and — while the script is at times a little repetitive and doesn’t drill down too deeply into its proclaimed theme of climate change — there is a clever use of language and structure that ultimately creates a sense of permanent dread as to why extenuating circumstances should have turned three good men into a rather desperate and irrational posse in a landscape that has been engulfed by the consequences of human inaction.
Aspects of magical realism are introduced as O’Brien’s character spits up implausible amounts of water and a young child — or perhaps the ghost of that child — shows up , invisible to the audience. Despite a harrowing journey through a tough situation, there is some evidence of human kindness and redemption towards the end of the play as Gardiner goes down with his ship and the other two men find a way to escape their increasingly sodden angstloch.
O’Brien is himself a Louisianan with a very real appreciation for the implications of climate crisis. His family lost their home in Hurricane Katrina. He sees this production and his creative work as part of his personal call to action as an artist who is working against climate change. As such, all of the proceeds from the workshop productions of “Water Made to Rise” will benefit local nonprofits that are working against climate change — specifically, the Pachamama Alliance, Citizens’ Climate Lobby and The Crest at Willow-Witt.
On Sunday, Sept. 30, “Water Made to Rise” will be performed at Willow-Witt Ranch, 658 Shale City Road in Ashland, as part of an interactive outdoor event. Starting at 3 p.m. there will be an open discussion with members of the three environmental organizations already mentioned. At 4 p.m., the actors will again perform Barret’s play. Tickets are $15 ($10 for students). Adult tickets are available at Paddington Station and at the Music Coop in Ashland (though student tickets will only be available at the door).
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.