Death by Water
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
February 28, 2008
Like a dream, bluemouth, inc.'s Death By Water is a puzzle of images that cannot be so easily pressed into place. For the dreamer (whether she is a free-associating Freudian, or a Jungian decoding archetypes), making meaning of her dream is a pleasure and at times an obsession. For the listener, unless he is an interested party (an analyst, or perhaps a romantic partner), the task of interpreting someone else's dream is a largely altruistic endeavor. The degree to which you will enjoy Death By Water depends upon whether or not you experience this unusual theatrical event as your dream or somebody else's.
This interdisciplinary performance—the second part of a trilogy entitled Something About a River, which premiered in Toronto in 2003—is said to "explore spiritual ambivalence." I read this after the fact and I cannot say that it illuminates what I witnessed. At the risk of sounding as elliptical as my subject, I won't go into great detail about the events themselves, because they are meant to be surprises. But I will say that the evening begins at a funeral home in Fort Greene, and involves theatre, dance, film, and a rickshaw.
That the piece is site-specific, and that the creators take some pains to blur the distinction between the reality and the fictive reality, makes me think they wish me to experience the cavalcade of eccentric moments as my dream. The film and the soundscape (which one hears via headphone) certainly support this. The choreography, watched through a Plexiglass window with the optional aid of binoculars, has a semi-surreal effect. The performances—the "acting"—certainly does not feel like acting. But there were several elements that took me out of the fiction. Chiefly among them was the text.
Sometimes as oblique dialogue, more often as a kind of hypnotic prose poem, the words seemed to want me to believe there was a mystery—a conspiracy that will or has occurred. Individual clues are whispered to each audience member as they are about to embark on their collective singular journey; old letters are referenced, as are dead brothers, and there is an extended poem of sorts, made of second-person directives ("You are approaching a lake. You dip your toes in the water," etc.). All of this is intended, I believe, to make one feel a co-conspirator.
The guide for much of the evening is a man I'll identify as "The Cowboy" because the names of the performers were not given, and more pointedly because he is clearly modeled after said character from David Lynch's nightmarish masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. In fact, if you have seen the film you will probably recognize in this tour guide's gently menacing patter a recognizable stretch of dialogue sampled from his cinematic counterpart. I still don't understand why this scene was appropriated, and it put me on the lookout for other instances of quotation (I found none).
What I have above referred to as a prose poem, which comprises easily half of the performance, was, in a way, the most dream-like component—words that seemed to want to spark my imagination, sensually-seduce me into an imagistic free-fall. There may have been an epiphany in there, a key to the unidentified mystery, but I found this protracted part exhausting, as if I were listening to someone else's endless dream, rather than experiencing it as my own.
bluemouth, inc.'s Death By Water is strange and varied enough that my reaction may not be typical. In fact, that feels essential to its design. I encourage you to go and experience this piece yourself, for it does possess that quality all too rare in theatre: the ability to wake you up.