Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Underneath
Presented by: Annex Theatre

The Annex Theatre just received the 2013 Gregory Award for “Theater of the Year” and their current production, “The Underneath” by Seattle playwright Kelleen Conway Blanchard is a perfect example of why the recognition was so richly deserved. This tiny theater on Capitol Hill, under Artistic Director Pamala Mijatov (who also directed this show) is committed to presenting new, locally created work that is adventurous, unusual and never safely conventional.
“The Underneath” is a mysterious, grotesquely comic and strangely threatening tale of a seaside community that is about to have a gaudy “Water World” amusement park take up residence to revive its stalled economy. The problem is that the construction is also reviving some frightening monsters of the undersea underworld, spitting up remnants of previous lost souls and taking captive new innocents who dare to intrude on the deep dark. Guiding us to a necessary understanding of the history of those ancient powers is the salty old cook in a cheesy seafood restaurant, a grizzled descendant of the Blackwater family. John McKenna does an excellent job of balancing Blackwater’s ridiculous characterization at the same time that he makes the danger and the history feel real.
Most directly affected by that danger are the sisters, Tina and Winnie, and their hard-working, marginally responsible waitress mother, Denise. Tina, as played by Pilar O’Connell, is a foul-mouthed, aggressively rebellious and socially outcast thirteen year-old. One of Blanchard’s accomplishments is in making her almost constant profanity sound both natural and surprisingly innocuous. She’s a smart girl with a flair for science and a lot of ideas she wants to build in her absent Dad’s basement shop.
Her sweet little sister, Winnie, is played with almost comic book preciousness and vulnerability by Meaghan Mary Halverson, and that’s just right for the monster she will become. Their mother, Denise, has all she can handle dealing with the customers at the diner, including her side-dish fling with Sheriff Rick Fantaub. Tracy Leigh gives Denise just the right amount of shop-worn debilitation and basic motherly concern. James Weidman does an excellent job of creating a Sheriff who is both a step up for Denise from the irresponsible father who deserted his family and a man with just enough decency to return her underwear from under the table where they’ve been “dating”.
The Sheriff is also responsible for safeguarding the community from the huckster Kevin, who wants to build the Water Park, the extravagant Teddy (both played by Daniel Christensen) and his sister Kimmi (a very funny Mandy Price) who has a fondness for dangerous marine life that has left her as scarred as she is enraptured.
Nothing comes to a very happy end in this show, and the horror and monstrosity make it an excellent choice for a Halloween show, but it is not limited to that. In fact, one of the things that makes this show notable and not just a holiday candy is the sense that the playwright wants us to think about deeper relationships between humans and the planet we live on. There are, in fact, probably too many gestures in the direction of greater complexity to the ideas behind this show, and the script would probably benefit from some simplification and focus. Still, what gives this consistently funny and amusing play a sense of significance greater than simply a scary story is the implication that our history, our myths and our connections with the eternal are never to be simply dismissed by the trivial desires of the present.
For all the Saturday matinee monsters unleashed in “The Underneath” there is an even greater argument that we must never forget that we are the most insignificant of transient details on the surface of an infinitely greater and deeper existence. But don’t worry. “The Underneath” never requires you to withhold your laughter or amusement for deeper thought during the course of the fast-paced action. Only later, say as you’re getting into bed, might you give some thought to what might exist far beneath the floorboards of your safe bedroom.
PICTURED ABOVE: Pilar O’Connell and John McKenna
PHOTO BY: Ian Johnston

Written by: Jerry Kraft

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