[Lost in the Dark]
Deep is a puppet theatre production that follows the story of marine archaeologist Rebekah Poleman (Natasha Daniel) who gets untethered from her submarine and becomes stranded four-thousand feet below the ocean surface and with only an hour of oxygen to spare. The story traces Poleman’s encounters with various underwater creatures as she attempts to survive the depths and return to safety. Written by Hayden J. Weal, the play promises to take audiences on a journey into unfamiliar territory, exploring fears associated with the deep ocean as well as the internal fears of the protagonist wrestling with vulnerabilities and issues of female sexuality. Unfortunately, the writing and production don’t delve deep enough into the relationship between patriarchy, extractive processes and their impact on female identity and the environment, and this ultimately results in a disorientating experience.
The performing area of the small intimate space Q Theatre’s The Vault is transformed into an underwater world of seaweed and dark currents with the use of streamers hanging from a rig of blue lights (set design by Cole Jenkins) and a score of bubbling roiling echoes, evoking liquid sounds (lighting and sound design by Jayden Henderson). The opening scene sees Poleman surveying a probe while tethered to the expedition submarine the ‘Imperium’. The scene is enacted with Poleman, costumed in jumpsuit and illuminated helmet, miming the action of checking a cable which is manipulated by two puppeteers on stage. Two of Poleman’s crew check on her progress while arguing about sharing the Submarines’ remaining rations of fruit yoghurt. The crew discuss the ensuing predicaments using walkie-talkie radios, simulating the radio communications that – along with the tether and air supply, anchor Poleman to the base submarine. When an accident causes Poleman to lose contact with the sub, the cast enact the scene using a miniature puppet of the intrepid diver – illuminating the figure from above as it tumbles into the darkness of the watery depths. It’s a beautiful moment illustrating how the art of puppetry can bring a scene to life using thoughtful manipulation techniques that engage the imagination of the audience.
A dramatic device introduced early in the play is the air supply that Poleman is slowly depleting on her journey back to her sub. The character’s suit gives occasional updates on the remaining airtime as the action progresses, which is announced via the use of a walkie-talkie radio by one of the cast. This was a compelling dramaturgical device to build tension in the play and create a sense of urgency. But just as the air is about to run out, a spare air cylinder suddenly appears and floats towards Poleman, providing her with the respite she needs to continue her journey and consequently allowing all the dramatic tension built up in the play to be released.
Much of the pleasure had in this production resides in the various underwater creatures that the protagonist encounters on her journey in the form of luminous puppets (created by Chye-Ling Huang and Paul Lewis) including a Blobfish, a Viperfish, several Anglerfish, a large pink jellyfish and a giant squid. However, at times the puppet characterisation and the techniques are inconsistent, making it difficult to sustain the audiences’ imaginations. The Blobfish that Poleman befriends is a hand puppet whose pectoral fins are manipulated by the puppets second hand that sits just below the puppets mouth. This means that whenever the Blobfish ‘talks’ using the puppeteer’s primary hand, the audience also sees the secondary hand of the puppeteer fluttering just below the puppet’s mouth which ultimately becomes distracting. The characterisation of the Blobfish is also distracting as it seems to recall the character Dory from the animated movie albeit with far less humorous jokes.
The Viperfish puppet that Poleman meets is wonderfully constructed and cleverly uses recycled plastic bags over an articulated wire frame filled with small lights which provides poignant commentary on the state of waste in our oceans while at the same time being lightweight and functional. Manipulated by two puppeteers, the Viperfish circles Poleman menacingly with its maw bristling with spiky teeth and its illuminated eel-like body ghostly traversing the stage left and then right. Unfortunately, the dialogue between the two characters is strained and becomes awkward when the Viperfish asks Poleman pointed questions about her sex life and then criticises her for being ‘a prude’ when she is not forthcoming with the details. The awkwardness of the scene is heightened by an odd choice to have both puppeteers manipulating the Viperfish occasionally voice the puppet’s disparaging remarks – something which ultimately detracts from the cohesiveness of the character.
Here the central premise of the play is revealed as an exploration of the Ocean depths and the depths of women’s sexuality – dual inquiries that unfortunately are not woven together successfully in the writing and ultimately lead to an unravelling of the play. In recent years, the pressing demands of the climate change emergency, including the impending disasters of sea-level rise and the plastic gyre floating in the Pacific, has also been accompanied by heightened attention to toxic masculinity, as well as capitalist and extractive processes that continue to damage the environment.
Although Deep attempts to take audiences on a journey into this unfamiliar territory, it ultimately gets lost in the dark. Perhaps this is territory that a female playwright would be better placed to shed light on and navigate?
Deep is presented by Sicko Productions and Proudly Asian Theatre and plays at Q Vault as part of Summer at Q and Auckland Fringe 25 to 29 February, 2020.