DRY LAND at Pomona College

March 5, 2016

 

A well-designed, (almost) adequately immersive dive into the waters of young womanhood, Pomona College’s DRY LAND succeeds best when it allows the text to steer. However, a noble but tapered directorial vision - divergent from playwright Ruby Rae Spiegel’s original goals - weighs the production down to near drowning. Why oh why did we ignore the playwright?

 

 

 

A mere step into the Allen Theatre for Pomona College's Dry Land places one inches away from the tile of a high school girls' locker room. Scenic designer James Taylor threatens to steal the show before it begins - rows of identical lockers, a sufficiently grimy bench in the center, and working (yes, working) showers included, the set is enveloping in its realness, and it ripens the production for success with an easy suspension of disbelief: here we are, in the world of swim caps and clogged pores and tampons and after-school confessions. Welcome to one of the many glamorous locales in which girls unwittingly discover they are women.

 

Ester is a swimmer trying to stay afloat. Amy is curled up on the locker room floor. DRY LAND is a play about abortion, female friendship, and resiliency, and what happens in one high school locker room after everybody's left. 

 

Ester is a swimmer trying to stay afloat. Amy is curled up on the locker room floor. Dry Land is a play about abortion, female friendship, and resiliency, and what happens in one high school locker room after everybody's left (description curtesy of Dramatists Play Service). The first line that we hear is "Punch me again." It's a command from the lips of Amy (Margaret Austin) to the reluctant hands of Ester (Aurora Brachman), and it injects both volatility and fragility into the atmosphere. Who are these girls? Do they know? Are they friends? Do they know? And how in the world did they end up here, in their booty shorts and flip flops, attempting a DIY abortion?

 

Austin and Brachman develop increasingly palpable chemistry together, and increasingly confident onstage presence as individuals, as the play moves along. Their naturalism is hampered, initially, by the overcompensation with which the college-aged actresses "play" teenagers - their inflection sometimes borders on caricature and feels forced (freshman Emily Coffin, as Reba - Amy's cheeky but fickle "best friend" at the play's onset - handles the script with much more ease). In subsequent scenes of crisis - during which one has no choice but to drop any facade that requires energy - the shift from teen-boppers to desperate humans feels a little too drastic. It is in these scenes, though, and in quieter moments (during which there is no denial of the sexual stirrings between the two young women - much appreciated), that our leading ladies are most captivating.

 

One element that might as well have been its own character in Pomona's production is Hsuan-Kuang's video design, which (along with Ellie Rabinowitz's lighting and Jesse Mandapat's sound design) supplemented certain scenes and filled sometimes lengthy scene changes with additional sensory detail. Amy and Ester's psyches - projected with oneiric flourish onto the upstage lockers and walls - contained chlorinated waves, childhood photos, blurry but pulsating ultrasound recordings, and white surfaces dotted, splattered, and pummeled with digitized blood. Though appropriately mesmerizing - and hopefully helpful, as it gave the cast time to change costumes - this cacaphony of abstract artistry took unwarranted control over the play's most pivotal scene. Here, we look to the vision - namely of the director, Joyce Lu.

 

Lu's director's notes in the front cover of the playbill express a personalized connection to - and therefore a specific, personalized interpretation of - Ruby Rae Spiegel's play. 

 

Lu's director's notes in the front cover of the playbill express a personalized connection to - and therefore a specific, personalized interpretation of - Ruby Rae Spiegel's play. Lu writes of a Japanese Buddhist practice known as mizuko rites: "in which the parents of aborted or otherwise terminated pregnancies pay homage to statues that represent both the children, or potential children, who die in the womb and their guardians." She goes on to explain that mizuko means "children of the waters," and how that phrase can apply poignantly to Ester and to Amy themselves, and how navigating the waters of this experience and suffering the loss that Amy suffers are travails that necessitate support and healing - healing that our political and social landscape prevents women from receiving. Now, before I continue, I must make clear that I find this conceptual rendering beautiful. I find it resonant. I find it noble. 

 

But with the director's vision tapered towards this concept, and with the technical artists compiling videography to supplement the story, I can see how the playwright was denied her place as a leading member of the creative team - which is a rightful place, playwright present or not. 

 

Ruby Rae Spiegel writes three succinct notes in published copies of DRY LAND (these are printed verbatim): 

1. Harshness is as true to this play as sweetness. 

2. The abortion in the play should be shown head-on. There should be a considerable amount of blood, and the actress playing Amy should feel comfortable being exposed. If she is hidden or too covered, it will seem as though the abortion is something that should not be seen. It is meant to be seen. 

3. After Scene VII, the Janitor should take his time cleaning the stage. 

 

With the playwright's first note, I would allege that Pomona College - and Joyce Lu - does well.

 

But the abortion scene, as interpreted by Ms. Lu, contains some fake blood (which appears dried and discolored) stained onto a pair of shorts and later a towel, plus an unsettling crescendo of cries and labored breathing and frenetic attempts at reassurance - all from behind a wall. 

 

Video projections of red splatters replace the tangible gore that the playwright - and the realities of abortion - call for. A whole sequence of lines, in which Ester feverishly removes her friend's shorts and underwear as Amy writhes in pain, is omitted. Stage direction that describes both girls' hands as being coated in crimson is blatantly ignored, and when the Janitor opens the door to the girls' locker room and discovers the scene, his lack of intervention seems ignorant, rather than strategic. For all he knows, the girls might be completing an art project with the newspaper spread on the floor, as Ester stutters as a cover. All evidence of trauma is easily hidden from him. When he returns a few hours later to clean, there is no blood to be painstakingly mopped from the tile - only a few crumpled newspapers and a dark, lemon-sized bundle in the trash can. 

 

And the audience doesn't see it. It's hidden. The actresses are covered. This is one way to depict abortion. It just isn't the play Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote. 

 

And the audience doesn't see it. It's hidden. The actresses are covered. This is one way to depict abortion. It just isn't the play Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote. 

 

Now, this assertion threatens to unbury questions that lie at the crux of our task as theatre-makers - questions with too much breadth for proper consideration in these paragraphs. Fundamental questions like: Whose story are we telling? When we bring Dry Land to an audience, is it Ruby Rae Spiegel's story? Is it Joyce Lu's? Is it Amy and Ester's - because they are fictional, and is that enough? What about me - me, Madeline Wall - the audience member, the theatre enthusiast, the 18-year-old girl? The story of the teenage girl - today, right now? 

 

As a teenage girl who, four days ago, felt a gush of liquid and clotted indignity creep between her thighs and crouched in a bathroom watching the white of the stall door twinge a shade of faint crimson before her woozy gaze, Dry Land is a narrative I recognize and claim. "It's just like a period," Ester says to Amy as she bleeds. "It's nothing to be ashamed of." But the parallel is not only accurate: it's ominous. Since when are periods not shameful? Since when is womanhood not, at times, traumatic in and of itself? 

 

This is my landscape to navigate monthly - daily, hourly - and the clarity with which I can see a situation like Dry Land unfolding between walls that I inhabit is arresting. I know these girls. I'm with these girls. I am these girls. Why did Pomona College hide our experience? 

 

Why did Pomona College ignore the playwright? 

 

As an educated theatregoer, I am disappointed. As a teenage girl, however, the disappointment stings more like betrayal. 

 

Pomona College's rendition of Dry Land is worth attending because it's Ruby Rae Spiegel's play. Have they done Ms. Spiegel's play justice, though? My gut tells me the answer must be no. 

DRY LAND at Pomona College, Allen Theatre 

Performances remaining on Saturday, March 5th at 2 P.M. and 8 P.M. and Sunday, March 6th at 2 P.M. 

Tickets: $11 general admission, $6 students/seniors/faculty/staff

pomona.edu/theatre

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