Thunder Above, Deeps Below
nytheatre.com review by Daniel John Kelley
September 11, 2009
Inspired by the late romances of Shakespeare, playwright A. Rey Pamatmat has created a wondrous magical adventure with Thunder Above, Deeps Below. It's large, loud, and complex—at times deeply funny, at times deeply disturbing. The play does credit to its classical roots while telling a story with real human characters that are entirely contemporary. Throughout the play, I found myself leaning forward in my seat, a huge smile on my face, totally immersed in the fantastical and yet heart-wrenching reality of the world of Thunder Above, Deeps Below.
The play focuses on the struggle of three homeless friends in present-day Chicago. These friends—Hector, a cocky "thug"; Gil, a flaming gay man with dreams of becoming a woman; and Theresa, a brooding and tortured loner—are trying to raise enough money to buy bus tickets to San Francisco before the harsh Chicago winter takes hold. To do this, they will try everything, from panhandling to selling their bodies. As the play progresses, we learn the stories of each of these characters—a combination of the kind of realities these people might face in real life and the magical circumstances that might happen to these characters if they were, say, in a play. Gil tells the story of how he was brought to America from the Philippines by a Middle Eastern prince, who fell in love with him, was forced to abandon him, but will one day return and take him away. Theresa dreams of the child she was forced to give away because of her racist parents, and of her husband, who is questing across the frozen waters of Lake Michigan to find her. And though Hector puts on a macho alpha-male persona, he lives by having sex for money with a rich African American family man named Locke.
What is most exciting about Thunder Above, Deeps Below is that it is at once movingly optimistic and cruelly cynical. As the play closes, some of the characters have been transformed and reborn by love and magic, while others are made to do the best they can with the hand they've been dealt. Thunder Above, Deeps Below is romantic for sure, but at the same time it is unflinchingly unsentimental in a way that is really refreshing.
As for the cast, they are superb. Each of the leads, Maureen Sebastian as Teresa, Jon Norman Schneider as Gil, and Rey Lucas as Hector, is a perfect fit for his or her role, and they work great together. Lucas and Schneider have especially strong chemistry as Hector and Gil: one of my favorite scenes in the show is between Hector and Gil, as they act out a scene from an X-Men comic that explores the nature of identity. The scene is brilliant, both hilarious and touching, and the two of them play off each other to great effect. Director Pat Diamond does a fantastic job of balancing the real and the magical, and knowing how to blend the two. His physical work with the actors creates exciting stage images to go along with the more poetical elements of Pamatmat's text.
And while the play is great, and the cast and director are terrific, one of the central driving engines of this production is the sound design and original music of the Broken Chord Collective. The magical world of this play is evoked so strongly through the use of sound, and the Broken Chord Collective's work operates seamlessly with the action, to highlight and heighten the world of the play.
In his playwright's note, Pamatmat talks about his fascination with the late plays of Shakespeare, especially Pericles. He writes how he'd love to see more plays like this on American stages, "the improbable acts, grand adventure, sudden revelations, deaths, resurrections, disguises, gender-bending, magic, sudden shifts in tone, underlying darkness, and 'happy' endings" that range from impossible to uncomfortable; these things are GREAT theatre." Pamatmat has put all this and more in Thunder Above, Deeps Below, and he is correct: it is, in fact, great theatre.