Strange stories are portrayed on stages every day. It's easy to show an audience something unnerving and for them to then walk out of the theater thinking, "Man, that sucked for those characters, huh?"
It's another step entirely for a theater company to draw the audience into the story, throwing the viewer off-balance along with the characters; the attentive viewer, then, gets an extra dose of stimulation, the proverbial rug not entirely pulled out—but shifted a few inches every few minutes. Stand firm.
Such is the effect of The Water Engine, an oft-overlooked 1977 show from mega-playwright David Mamet, as staged by Oasis Theatre Company. Originally penned as a radio drama, Mamet adapted it for the stage, and left future companies the ability to render it a hybrid of the two styles. That is precisely what Oasis has done here, to effective and surprisingly unsettling effect.
Set in 1934 Chicago (during the World's Fair, no less), the action follows budding inventor Charles Lang (Matthew Montoya), who has created an engine that can run on water. He attempts to patent it with a couple shady lawyers (Nicholas Ballas and James Jenner), and soon begins to fear for his own safety and that of his sister Rita (Tallis Rose).
The basic plot is simple, then; it is the wild embellishment from side characters and faux radio performance that makes the show worthwhile. Each actor plays multiple roles, changing hats and voices. Sometimes they stand behind microphones on a riser onstage, holding scripts, under an "ON THE AIR" sign; sometimes they're downstage acting in a traditional performance; there are sound effects from stage manager Suzanne Cross at a table visible off to stage left and an omnipresent recorded audio voiceover from D Davis.
Overall, the staging took a bit to get used to (at intermission, I said to my companion: "I don't know how this could be on the radio; I really need my eyes"), but the actors' deft handling of the switching characters and ultimately flawless blocking rendered it a potent communication.
Further, the number of distinct, dynamic characters conveyed the whole world of 1934 Chicago, rather than just the snapshot of Lang's life. Once you figure out what everything means (Ballas wearing one hat in particular, ringing a triangle, indicates an elevator; ensemble member Karen Gruber Ryan in a military coat, barking political commentary, brings us to the "free speech zone" of Bughouse Square), a whole city materializes. All the characters we meet, even if only for a few lines, become tangible and sympathetic.
All cast members carried their weight, proving the show competently cast by director and Oasis Artistic Director Brenda Lynn Bynum. At times, Montoya, as the fresh-faced but wary young inventor, lacked the urgency we wanted from Charles; but this could also be interpreted as a nervous inventor trying to play it cool in the presence of folks who could destroy his reputation (and him). Even so, it wasn't permeating enough to be considered "a concern" with the casting.
Tallis Rose, for one, has always been impressive, even in goofy roles (when you're still thinking about a bit character in the Playhouse's campy Fiesta Melodrama back in September, it's a sign that actor knew what they were doing). Here, primarily as Lang's sister Rita, Rose is nuanced, a balance between paranoid and hopeful, dreaming about what their house in the country will look like once Charles' money from the engine starts coming in. Pursed and proper, she isn't simply scared, and she isn't simply simple. She's treading a fine, cerebral line, and Rose portrays it well. Later, Rose appears again as a paperboy. In a cap and slouchy jacket, she marches down the theater's aisle and chucks a bundle of newspapers onstage, yelling a single word ("Papers!")—and just this was enough to make the audience laugh. Of course, that adage comes to mind: There are no small parts, only small actors.
Also worth noting was an ensemble performance from Talia Pura, who plays a gossip in an elevator, a flirty secretary and—most heartbreakingly—a neighbor of the Langs, a deeply accented immigrant simply trying to do the right thing, but who only seals the Langs' fate. The elevator scenes, signaled by Ballas' ringing of the triangle, are a fun glimpse into the middle-class world of 1934, where "science" was a word akin to "abracadabra" and rumors were passed along from hearing stuff over your shoulder.
Ballas, too, shows versatility, shifting easily from slimy lawyer to elevator operator to hard-working journalist. (We would like to note from our perch in the newsroom: How refreshing it was to see Charles desperately calling a newspaper reporter, sure that the press could literally save his life.) Jenner is believable both as Ballas' equally slimy partner in law and a lovable shopkeeper who tries to keep Charles safe. Ryan (who, by the way, opens the show with a really beautiful a cappella rendition of the Illinois state song, charmingly setting the stage for a time when people actually knew the words to their state song) disappears into each of her many roles; it was even hard to remember afterward which roles she played, as each seemed like it was played by a different actor. A precious Bernie (a boy under 12), a side-eye dealing secretary, and a political activist on a soapbox? All Ryan, all ultimately believable.
If the swirling actors and shifting style grow easier to follow as the show goes on, there is one aspect that creates deeper unease: an eerie voiceover from D Davis. The disembodied voice reads through the text of a chain letter (remember chain letters?), telling of the fate that befell folks who didn't send a $1 money order to the three people on the top of the list, or listing the lucky breaks of those who did. The voice comes back again and again, repeating certain words and looping us back again into an atmosphere of paranoia, suspicion and superstition. Additionally, a number of small but foreboding details do more and more to unnerve the audience: A few scenes see actors talking over each other, leaving us unsure of who we should listen to, a clever device to bring us into the action. In the script, the phrase "going down" (which occurs most often in the elevator, of course) takes on an increasingly sinister tone.
Overall, Oasis' intricate interpretation of The Water Engine pulls off what could have easily been muddy in the hands of less capable actors and a less confident director. Just bring your thinking cap and pay attention.
The Water Engine
7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday Feb. 15-17; 2 pm Sunday Feb. 18. Through Feb. 25. $15-$25. Teatro Paraguas, 3205 Calle Marie; tickets: 917-439-7708