At ‘The Watering Hole,’ artists and audience wash away the past year

  • Our critic's rating:
    July 2, 2021
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    On the wall of Signature Theatre, there is the following phrase written on fabric: “No need to hide that we are grieving. Time is a river, we wash the wounds. The water is singing. So sing with me.” It is beautiful and evocative, acknowledging the trauma of the past year while welcoming the audience back to the theatre. It is part of an interactive installation by theatre artists Haruna Lee and Vanessa German, that they created for The Watering Hole, a new theatre piece conceived by Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage and director Miranda Haymon.

    The Watering Hole is the first in-person theatrical piece the Signature has mounted since the Covid-19 shutdown. It is a collaboration between 19 theatremakers, and it is not a typical piece of theater. It’s rather a series of art installations, with some theatrical monologues.

    Audiences are led, in groups of four, through different installations at Signature Theatre, some occurring in the theatre spaces, others in the lobby, backstage, in dressing rooms and hallways. The theme is partially about the flow of water, but it’s also about community — a watering hole being a place to not just grab a beverage but also to engage in conversation.

    Nottage allowed her collaborators to interpret the theme on their own, and though it leads to a diverse array of presentations, there is a slight disjointedness to the overall event. One minute you may watch Ryan J. Haddad’s short film about learning how to swim as a disabled person, and then you will have a solo experience with a recording of Christina Anderson and Miranda Haymon’s spoken word poem about being forced to be still during the pandemic. What do those pieces have to do with one another? The through line is not always clear.

    The best way to view The Watering Hole is not as a traditional theatrical experience, which it’s not claiming to be, but instead, I enjoyed the pieces as sensory experiences. For instance, during “SSSSSSSSSHHHHHH” by nicHi douglas and Phillip Howze, where each audience member sat in their individual black box while a screen slowly changed colors, the interplay of light and repetitive sounds lulled me into a serene meditation.

    The highlight was “Spray Cap” by Matt Barbot and Amith Chandrashake, where the audience sat on stage, around a larger-than-life fire hydrant, while listening to a monologue about finally being able to be outside to enjoy summer in New York. When the fire hydrant sprayed a fine mist at us, we all giggled like children.

    Not all of the pieces in The Watering Hole are equally effective, and the industrial concrete Signature building sometimes made it difficult to fully embrace the themes of relaxation and rejuvenation. The monologues were also all pre-recorded, a curious choice considering that many pieces spoke directly about the pandemic. A live performance element would have been a welcome balm after the remote hell of the past year.

    Yet as a welcome back into in-person theatre, The Watering Hole is a poignant and self-reflective experience, if you let it wash over you.

    The Watering Hole is running at Signature Theatre through August 8.

    Photo credit: The Watering Hole (Photo by Lia Chang)