THE WAY OF WATER at High Velocity
A reflection on Opera del Espacio theatre company’s radical riff of the play.
By Courtney Ryan
On April 17th 2012, the Los Angeles-based experimental theatre company Opera del Espacio performed a minimalist extraction of Caridad Svich’s play The Way of Water. The piece, staged outdoors at California State University, Los Angeles, compresses Svich’s 100 page play into a 50 minute high-speed “reading” that includes choreography set to a fragmented audio recording of the text. Although the company strips the play of much of its dialogue and characterization, it nonetheless highlights the pervasive environmental injustice critiqued within The Way of Water.
The piece begins with two men rapidly reading the first scene of the play, which takes place between the fishermen Jimmy and Yuki. The performers’ words overlap and truncate each other, while indistinguishable white noise further fragments the men’s conversation. A few phrases are uttered repeatedly and more slowly than the rest, and, hence, stand out from the otherwise high-speed performance. Echoed lines like “No use complaining,” “Stinks,” and “That’s the way it goes” serve to boil the scene down to its simplest iteration. As the men tersely converse, three female performers walk the stage’s perimeter carrying buckets full of oil. Wearing bright, orange rubber gloves and pinnies, the women clinically relocate the oil from one side of the stage to the other, metaphorically from one part of the ocean to another. The buckets of oil, only feet away from the audience, remain visible throughout the performance, and, thus, act as a constant, material reminder of the BP oil spill and its effects.
In the scenes that follow, the dialogue, largely prerecorded, becomes increasingly disjointed and incoherent. The recording is a dissonant musical score, its rapid text layered with various sounds like crackling, white noise, and—at one point—heartbeats, all of which complements the largely abstract physical movement. Certain words and phrases are echoed, slowed, and emphasized, strategically cutting through the otherwise frenetic, inchoate dialogue; since the aural pace is generally chaotic, the rare moments of stillness within the text and the movement offer contrastingly sharp clarity. For instance, the stage direction “A moment” is repeated throughout the piece, particularly when Jimmy cannot stop trembling. These moments of pause, juxtaposed with the piece’s perpetual speed, highlight the grave effects the spill has had on Jimmy. The aural slowing is matched by a physical slowing, during which the performers take off their gloves and begin placing them neatly on a prostrate, shaking Jimmy. As he shakes, the other characters form a trembling cluster around him, suggesting that it is not just Jimmy who is sick.
This hint at a collective contamination is fully realized in the piece’s final minutes, in which audience members are invited to pour the buckets of oil on the performers, now stripped down to their undergarments. Once the actors are completely doused in oil, performers in hazmat suits wrap plastic sheeting around them. The piece ends with the oiled actors beginning to suffocate as yellow Caution tape is repeatedly roped around their plastic enclosure. Thus, just as Caridad Svich emphasizes the toxicity of an entire ecosystem—humans, animals, water, and land—so too does Opera del Espacio. Although the company’s minimalist extraction of The Way of Water is quite a departure from the play, it nonetheless conveys Svich’s central message that environmental injustice affects every organism, not just an unfortunate few.