nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
July 6, 2005
Fathom, created by SaBooge Theatre and presented by Soho Think Tank in their annual summer play festival Ice Factory, will remind you why you to go see live theatre instead of going to the movies or watching TV. It invokes theatricality as what separates theatre from these other mediums and makes the suspension of disbelief an artistic gesture on the part of the audience.
SaBooge’s concept of theatricality is based on unbridled imagination combined with naturalistic ensemble acting set against a backdrop of music, lights, and sound. Music makes up a large part of the aesthetics of the production. Musicians Peter Lettre and Jeff Lorenz play everything from a mandolin to a bass clarinet, dropping one instrument and picking up another like a two-man symphony on an assembly line. The set is so simple and yet so exquisite and its pieces are pragmatically used for anything. A suitcase and a plank, for example, make for a great row boat. A large swath of scrim makes for a perfect slice of underwater when lit with blue light and then it transforms into an awning. The ensemble works like a beating heart, pumping blood into living characters and transforming the set as if it were an extension of themselves.
The story they play out is a gripping tale of selfishness and the deep need to understand human nature. It is set on an island where convicts are sent from England to live out their sentences. This particular convict is a young woman named Sarah who was sent to the island with her infant child for stealing a single fish. She has been taken from the factory where she’d been working and put to work as a servant by a charitable lady named Jane. Jane’s husband Winston is a scientist who believes he has discovered a method of predicting criminal behavior by examining the lumps on the head. The story picks up at the arrival of Alastair, a young scientist’s assistant, who has come to study and catalogue sea shells. Alastair befriends Fabian, the now teenaged son of Sarah, and discovers that Fabian has the ability to breathe underwater. This launches Alastair on a campaign to flaunt Fabian in front of the scientific world as an extraordinary example of Darwinian adaptation.
All the characters except for Fabian harbor a selfish desire for something, but it is Alastair’s desire to exploit Fabian that comes in conflict with Winston’s need to believe that he is of superior stock. As they wrestle over the boy’s fate we begin to see that Fabian’s innocence is merely the tip of this iceberg of a theme. Below the waterline lie other themes of redemption, greed, the vanity of knowledge, and the triumph of the human spirit. If Fabian is to survive, his soul must learn to adapt to the greed of men just as his lungs have adapted to breathing water. It’s his innocence that eventually leads him to his only option.
The title of the play, Fathom, is quite brilliant. Its dual meaning (to fully understand and a measurement of water depth) runs through the entire play. Jeff Lorenz’s rich sound design also runs through the entire show. He takes us from buzzing bugs on a porch to the gentle splashing of the tide and then to an eerie underwater hum. Together with his wonderful original score Lorenz creates an unforgettable soundscape. Simon Harding is credited as production designer. If that means he designed the lights and set then he deserves the highest praise. The lights are dark and evocative and the set is versatile. Harding’s work is a perfect fit for this production.
The fact that SaBooge is a collective makes it difficult to give credit where credit is due. There is, for example, no credit given for the marvelous text. I assume that it is a devised script created by the members of the ensemble; I commend them for a job well done. Devised scripts are not always this polished. Richard Crawford is credited with collaborating on direction but there is not a single person credited as director so I must once again commend SaBooge, this time for the purity of their directorial vision. The show is evenly spiced with simple and yet very theatrical conventions such as the way a clothes line is created or the wind blows through the women’s skirts. There are some moments in Fathom that I watched with my mouth hanging open in astonishment. The beautiful underwater scenes are one example.
The cast turns out an outstanding naturalistic performance. They also double as stage crew, converting the set into whatever the script or direction calls for. Attila Clemann plays Alastair with the perfect amount of blind enthusiasm you might find in a young scientist. Andrew Shaver is cold and ridiculously superior as Winston. Kayla Fell plays Jane with a wonderful balance of quirkiness and righteousness. I loved Adrienne Kapstein’s painfully blank stares as the convict with a heavy weight on her soul. And Patrick Costello delivers a pliable and charming performance as the young Fabian.
Fathom is everything that theatre should be. This production should not be missed. I know I won’t miss anything that SaBooge puts out there in the future.