Thursday night, I saw Evolution Theater’s Canadian premiere of Mark Ravenhill’s Pool (No Water). It is a good show and well worth seeing. The script is great; the decision to stage it in traverse is skillfully exploited; there are simple but effective set and lighting design choices; and the ensemble, on the whole, offers an effective performance — Kate Smith, in particular, stands out. It is good theatre and very entertaining — and surprisingly funny! Some “dollar per minute” critics might balk at its short length (I heard that someone complained because it was only sixty-some minutes when it’s advertised as seventy-some minutes), but I was wholly and utterly satisfied and thought it money well spent. NB: spoilers lie ahead.
Of course, you wouldn’t know the play was funny, if you only paid attention to the reactions of the audience. There is a lot of fine humour in this script but, with the exception of the most obvious guffaws, most people did not allow themselves to laugh out loud. I have no doubt that most people got it; my best guess is that most people were unsure whether or not laughter in this context was appropriate. And that uncertainty feeds on itself. With only a tiny minority of people laughing out-loud, anyone who was unsure of its appropriateness probably concluded it wasn’t.
Fortunately, the ensemble resisted the temptation to try and cue the audience by hamming it up or going for big gags (with the possible exception of one coke-induced sniffle which was definitely a gag but well-handled and subtle enough to justify). Instead, for most of the show, the characters and the circumstances are presented genuinely and without explicit judgment or criticism. The audience is left to pass judgment on its own. As a result, instead of thinking, wow, you guys are despicable, we think, wow, I’ve totally felt and done similar things. Ultimately, we laugh in solidarity with these people who are, from many perspectives, mostly despicable. We empathize and the result is a very entertaining show, despite serious, dark, and even “arty” subject matter.
Then, suddenly, at a crucial instance in the narrative, the production breaks with these terms of reference and gives into the temptation to pass explicit and overt judgement on the activities of these people who are — despite all their foibles — our friends. During a particularly intense drug binge, there is a light-change and some music played that, for me, seemed to be a rather blunt attempt to convey the message: “here be badness!”
This doesn’t work for me for a bunch of reasons. First, because everything up until this point has been handled without judgment, the sudden intrusion of this third-party “light and sound” of moral judgment is just that — an unwanted intrusion. Second, it kind of insults my intelligence. I am intelligent and experienced enough to assess when drug use has gone out of hand. There seems little good reason to try and shape my judgment now. Third, because I’ve come to identify and enjoy the company of these guys and gals, despite their very real failings, they are now my friends and casting them in this abrupt and judging perspective is unjustified because they are doing nothing they haven’t already done before. These guys are drug fiends! We know that and its kind of funny because we are all drug fiends in our own way too. Fourth, this sudden and wholly unjustified judgment feels like a kind of attack on us because we identify and empathize with them. Again, there is no reason for it and, in doing it, we don’t really learn or discover anything we didn’t already know: yes, drugs can be bad. We know. Fifth, when the play returns to keel, and it’s original non-judging terms of reference come into play again, the amusing and unexpected resolution to the play seemed to me to be undercut by this moment of third-party judgment.
Essentially, for me, this abrupt shift in the production’s non-judging terms of reference works against everything else that succeeds in it — even the performances momentarily slide into caricatures of what we all think bad drug trips are meant to look like. On my view, if there is going to be an attempt to shift the terms of reference of a production, it should be done in a fashion that rewards the audience and works within the internal logic of the given terms of reference. And I don’t necessarily mean: make the audience feel good about themselves or delight them, but this is often ideal. Yes, “the reward” can be unsettling too. For example, in Doubt, the terms of reference shift a bunch of times but it all happens in a fashion that is internally consistent and it rewards the audience with a new and unexpected perspective even if it is unsettling for some. In contrast, the shift in the terms of reference in this production of Pool does not. We all know that drug use can get out of hand and nasty. Don’t subvert or change the terms of reference to tell us that. Furthermore, the very satisfying punch line of the script is the fact that the very negative climax leads to a very happy and unexpected ending for all involved. Now that’s a fun, amusing, unexpected and wholly consistent shift and I think it would have been better served by leaving out this intrusion of moral judgment.
Even so, the intrusion of moral judgment is by no means a disaster and the overall production is of a high-enough quality that it remains an unequivocal success. I should also say, Wayne, my usual post-show sparring partner also enjoyed the show but he did not quite buy into this line of beer and jalapeno-popper fueled critical analysis when we discussed it at the nearby Carleton Tavern. So, if you have seen the show and think differently, please post a reply. If you haven’t seen it, by all means go. It’s well worth the time and money.